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Litigation Journal

Winter 2023 | Timing

The Rocket Docket: Ensuring Clarity and Predictability in Civil Litigation

Attison Leonard Barnes III, Stephen Joseph Obermeier, and Krystal Brunner Swendsboe


  • The Eastern District of Virginia's speed and efficiency are part of a well-known, long history.
  • A litigant can enjoy the predictability of having a matter heard and resolved in less than a year.
  • When local rules are not followed, the consequences can be severe.
The Rocket Docket: Ensuring Clarity and Predictability in Civil Litigation
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The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (EDVA)—or the “Rocket Docket” as it is often known—is one of the fastest federal courts in the country. Indeed, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in 2021, the average EDVA civil case lasted only six months from filing to disposition (including settlements). Prior to the implementation of COVID-19 guidance, the average length of time between filing a civil case and trial was 11 months. Even with slowdowns related to COVID-19 precautions, the EDVA remains one of the fastest courts in which a litigant may file a civil case and obtain final resolution.

The Rocket Docket’s judicial speed and efficiency are part of a well-known, long history that is particularly aided by continuity on its bench. Former Chief Judge Walter E. Hoffman—who was reported to have semi-facetiously referred to the term “continuance” as “obscene,” for example—served for 42 years. Former Chief Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr.—who instituted the issuance of early scheduling orders and a regular motions day in the Alexandria Division in the 1980s—served as a member of the court for 48 years. Further, former judges John MacKenzie, James Cacheris, James Spencer, and Robert Merhige Jr., and current senior judges Robert Doumar, T.S. Ellis, and Claude Hilton, as well as current judge Leonie Brinkema, have all served the court for more than 30 years. The Rocket Docket’s current senior judges—including those named above—continue to manage an impressive caseload and aid in the day-to-day work of the district. The active tenure of the senior judges safeguards the court’s values and unique procedures.

Rocket Docket practitioners also play an important role in ensuring speed and efficiency, as well as collegiality. The EDVA bar is a tight-knit community that prides itself on its courtesy and professionalism. Like many courts, the Rocket Docket requires un-admitted attorneys to associate with local counsel for appearances in any case. But the local civil rules make clear that local counsel is more than mere formality. For example, Local Civil Rule 83.1(D)(3) requires that local counsel in the EDVA sign and file all pleadings in a case, and it states that local counsel may not withdraw their appearance “without leave of the Court.” That same local rule further requires local counsel to have “such authority that the Court can deal with the attorney alone in all matters connected to the case.” The court’s insistence that local counsel be personally responsible for any issues that arise in litigation ensures that procedures are followed and standards of professionalism are upheld. When local rules are not followed, the consequences can be severe. Many out-of-district lead counsel have fielded difficult reprimands from the bench for violations of the court’s unique rules and expectations.

Speed and Efficiency

While the Rocket Docket’s speed may create unique challenges, many long-term EDVA practitioners praise the Rocket Docket for the clarity and predictability that its procedures foster. Indeed, predictability and clear rules are the primary benefits offered by litigation in the Rocket Docket. Predictable deadlines and expectations allow practitioners to advise their clients effectively and to focus a dispute on the areas of greatest concern. The Rocket Docket also allows litigants to allocate their resources appropriately and to weather the inherent unpredictability of litigation with minimal disruptions to a litigant’s daily life or business. Moreover, the Rocket Docket’s predictability benefits EDVA practitioners from a firm-management standpoint, allowing law firms to more accurately allocate their internal resources and, if necessary, refer a case to another admitted lawyer if the firm lacks capacity to handle multiple complex matters in the court simultaneously. At bottom, regardless of the outcome, practitioners and litigants are better off having disputes and legal questions resolved quickly, allowing them to move the case forward and to allocate their resources efficiently.

The speed and judicial efficiency that are hallmarks of the Rocket Docket are due, in no small part, to certain timing procedures adopted and enforced by the court. Although the Rocket Docket’s values of efficiency and speed are expressed in a variety of ways, the most obvious procedures that contribute to the court’s reputation are (1) the Rule 16(b) scheduling order, (2) discovery procedures, (3) general motion practice, and (4) trial scheduling.

The early setting of abbreviated deadlines contributes to the Rocket Docket’s reputation. Absent unusual circumstances or a complex case, the court typically issues a Rule 16(b) scheduling order shortly after a defendant’s appearance in a case. Pursuant to Local Civil Rule 16(B), the scheduling order must issue “not later than sixty (60) days from first appearance or ninety (90) days after service of the complaint,” and it includes several unique provisions. The typical scheduling order in the Alexandria Division, for example, states that “discovery may begin as of receipt of this Order,” rather than after the Rule 26(f) conference. The scheduling order also typically provides that a party may not exceed five nonparty, non-expert depositions, absent leave of the court, although it allows a greater number of interrogatories that a party may issue, 30, as opposed to the 25 allowed by the federal rules.

In addition to the early setting of deadlines, the Rocket Docket actively limits continuances of those deadlines. Local Civil Rule 16(B) explicitly states that “no extensions or continuances thereof shall be granted in the absence of a showing of good cause.” The local civil rules further emphasize the deadlines set in the scheduling order by requiring the court to construe “good cause” narrowly. Specifically, Local Civil Rule 16(B) states that “mere failure on the part of counsel to proceed promptly with the normal processes of discovery shall not constitute good cause for an extension or continuance.” The deadlines set by the scheduling order are not likely to change, absent unusual and unforeseen circumstances. In a recent case, even global travel limitations during the COVID-19 pandemic that limited parties’ ability to arrange for the presence of international witnesses for discovery proceedings and trial were not sufficient reason to extend deadlines. Indeed, even illnesses will not ensure extension if other counsel is available to take the lead on the particular brief, argument, or filing at issue.

The Rocket Docket does not consider “agreement of counsel” to be good cause for a continuance, which often comes as a shock to out-of-district attorneys. Local Civil Rule 7(G) states that “motions for continuances of a trial or hearing date shall not be granted by the mere agreement of counsel.” While this rule may be common but unenforced in other jurisdictions, the Rocket Docket consistently enforces its local rules, including rules regarding the good cause necessary to receive a continuance. Indeed, many attorneys have been dismayed to find their joint continuance requests denied. Local practitioners regularly have to advise out-of-district co-counsel, or even opposing counsel at times, that they must show more than mere consent to obtain a continuance. On many occasions, we have explained to stunned out-of-district counsel that even when a rare extension is granted, the additional time is frequently handed down in days, not weeks or months.

The court’s early introduction of and strict adherence to the scheduling order are both good and bad for litigants. On the one hand, the scheduling order provides predictability for litigants, allowing them to allocate resources in a meaningful way. Litigants can also plan an “end” date for certain litigation milestones, which may help to prevent decision fatigue, a loss of focus or knowledge due to turnover, or the loss of morale that can arise in long, drawn-out litigation. Local practitioners can better manage their own caseload to ensure that they are able to comply with the Rocket Docket’s demands.

On the other hand, the lack of flexibility can be expensive in a short time, requiring a larger initial investment of resources to ensure strategic success than in slower courts where the cost burden is stretched over longer periods. This inflexibility can create a substantial financial burden even before an answer is filed and could be construed as a disadvantage to defendants, who, unlike the plaintiff, may not have had notice of the plaintiff’s intent to file a lawsuit and therefore had no time to get up to speed before the commencement of the case. In some instances, the lack of flexibility could also harm self-represented parties who may not have the ability or time to keep pace with a represented, or better-equipped, adversary.

For the vast majority of cases, however, the quick pace of the Rocket Docket—as well as its strict adherence to a scheduling order—makes sense. Legal fees and litigation expenses in the Rocket Docket may be lower overall because the cases resolve so quickly, but that is not always the case. For smaller companies and less affluent individuals facing document-intensive cases, the Rocket Docket may be a challenge financially with an intense period of expenditure. If burdensome discovery requests are served as soon as the initial order is issued, some litigants will be forced to settle to avoid the costs, even when the case has questionable merit. Litigants in complex cases sometimes believe they do not have sufficient time to effectively conduct discovery in the court’s three- to four-month discovery window, which could lead to a lack of courtesy on accommodations between counsel and extra motions practice as the parties push forward on tight deadlines. Although the court does sometimes recognize the need for extra time in complex cases, such extensions are not guaranteed.


The Rocket Docket’s strict scheduling requirements can create an intense discovery process. In the EDVA, the discovery period (which includes both fact and expert discovery) is typically limited to 90 to 120 days after the Rule 26(f) conference, although discovery requests may have been served before that conference, as the typical scheduling order permits. Local Civil Rule 26(C) requires parties to serve objections “to any interrogatory, request, or application under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26 through 37” within “fifteen (15) days after [] service” and the objections “shall be specifically stated.” That means written objections must be served before responses are due. If the disputed discovery is ordered by the court, Local Civil Rule 37(C) imposes an 11-day “default deadline for complying with any discovery order.” In many cases, the short discovery process and the need to file early objections encourage litigants to target their discovery requests, avoid boilerplate objections, and focus on the most important issues during discovery disputes.

In the Alexandria Division, litigants may seek rapid resolution of any objection disputes using the court’s one-week procedure for non-dispositive motions. Here is how it works: A litigant may file a non-dispositive motion by 5 p.m. on Friday for hearing on the next Friday. The response in opposition is due by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and a reply must be filed as early as possible on Thursday. In a recent case, out-of-district counsel was unaware of the one-week briefing timeline and attempted to excuse his failure to oppose a motion by arguing that the local practice was unreasonable. The court swiftly chastised the attorney for his failure to comply with the local rules and advised him to rely on local counsel and to learn the rules of the Rocket Docket if he wished to return to court.

To be sure, the 15-day objection deadline is not without controversy. Some litigants criticize the shortened objection deadline as needlessly increasing disputes by encouraging parties to file motions to compel before any materials are produced. In the Alexandria Division, litigants often raise fundamental issues of privilege or immunity, or other key case-defining issues, in pre-response motions as a strategy to ensure that the forthcoming production is as comprehensive as possible. The 15-day discovery objection deadline, coupled with the Alexandria Division’s non-dispositive motions procedure, means that litigants may have conferred and obtained a resolution to their discovery disputes before discovery responses are even due. Further, the Alexandria Division’s shortened briefing and hearing schedule applicable to discovery motions often requires litigants to prioritize the most important disputes, narrowing the issues presented to the court to avoid wasting time with minor or inconsequential disagreements. Indeed, it is not uncommon for a magistrate judge during a busy motions docket to distill a discovery dispute to a few key points and focus the parties on the issues perceived to be critical to the case.

The Rocket Docket’s typical discovery timeline creates both burdens and benefits for litigants. For example, the court’s compressed discovery timeline often requires litigants to undertake document collection and initial review immediately after entering a case, even before a motion to dismiss is resolved, to ensure that any objections are specific and well founded and that document production is timely. Early collection and review can be costly, but they ensure that the litigants are aware of critical proof issues and can adjust their strategy accordingly, without delay.

Substantive Legal Issues

The Rocket Docket prioritizes swift resolution of substantive legal issues. The EDVA does not require litigants to obtain permission to file a motion, such as by calling chambers or filing pre-motion letters, as do some courts. The district strictly adheres to a requirement that the parties certify that they met and conferred before the filing. The Rocket Docket also generally requires litigants to set an oral argument date for each motion. Local Civil Rule 7(E) states that “a motion shall be deemed withdrawn if the movant does not set it for hearing (or arrange to submit it without a hearing) within thirty (30) days after the date on which the motion is filed.” Although the practice has waned in certain divisions, the Alexandria Division of the Rocket Docket holds regular hearing days for civil matters every week. The judge will often rule from the bench on the pending motion, especially a non-dispositive one, following it up with a short and pointed order that afternoon or shortly thereafter. A judge may instead signal how the motion will be resolved to allow the parties to reach a compromise. Judges in the Alexandria Division will also cancel hearings and rule on the papers where appropriate. It is important, therefore, for all pertinent arguments to be presented well in the limited pages allowed. Litigants should not scrimp or ignore their briefing obligations or plan to rely solely on oral argument, which may not be allowed.

The regular occurrence of hearings and oral argument and the swift resolution of motions after a hearing are highly regarded in the Rocket Docket. Oral argument typically requires practitioners to narrow and sharpen the disputes they want to present to the court and to focus on the most pressing issues. That includes devoting significant attorney time to conduct meet-and-confer discussions and to prepare for the hearings. The court demonstrates regularly at these hearings that it is well equipped to weed through complicated issues and provide guidance swiftly. Rocket Docket judges are routinely praised for their hearing preparation and understanding of the issues in dispute, which make the hearings productive for all parties. For example, counsel appearing at oral arguments in the EDVA are encouraged not to restate the same arguments in their briefs and are similarly advised at trials not to present duplicative witnesses, particularly in a bench trial, thereby shortening hearings and trials and saving resources.

If the judges are moving quickly in the Rocket Docket, so should the lawyers. Ultimately, the ability to present an issue to the court and to get a quick ruling helps litigants achieve predictability and clarity. It is also not uncommon for an EDVA judge to send lawyers out to the hallway to discuss an issue and return to the courtroom after the discussion, primarily to avoid the need for a follow-up motion on a later date. Rather than being stalled for months (or years) waiting for a ruling on a critical motion, litigants in the Rocket Docket can strategize more effectively, allocate resources, and move the case forward (or resolve the case) without court-caused delay.

The Rocket Docket’s motion and hearing procedures are particularly beneficial for injunctive or emergency actions. Unsurprisingly, the court’s ability to quickly schedule and prepare for a complicated hearing is essential for litigants who need swift court action to protect their interests. In most cases, the Alexandria Division can schedule a prompt hearing on a temporary restraining order if the judge considers the request urgent as presented through clear and complete declarations. The court may also dispense with oral testimony of witnesses and burdensome formal presentation of evidence in the injunction setting, when appropriate, saving time and resources both for the litigants and the court.

Finally, the Rocket Docket’s trial scheduling procedures encourage swift resolution of civil cases. Civil litigants are strongly encouraged to appear before a magistrate judge for a settlement conference. District judges routinely advise litigants regarding the benefits of mediation and the availability of the magistrate judges for settlement conferences. EDVA magistrate judges are willing and effective mediators, regularly facilitating a pretrial resolution and thus saving litigants time and money. Indeed, the availability of strong mediation options and repeated encouragement from the court help to overcome barriers to pursuing settlement, such as posturing or a reluctance to be perceived as weak.

The Rocket Docket’s trial scheduling procedures further encourage litigants to seek compromise and settlement. Trial is scheduled at the final pretrial conference in the Alexandria Division for a date around four to eight weeks later. When deadlines are firm and a trial date looms, litigants have strong motivators for settlement because the prospect of trial with only a short time to prepare can be daunting. Some litigants get anxious in the weeks leading up to trial and seriously contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Hard-fought disputes can end abruptly when an opposing party is unable to secure a continuance of an impending trial.

Due to its strict enforcement of deadlines and swift-moving case schedules, the Rocket Docket can be an exciting—and sometimes intimidating—place to practice. The Rocket Docket’s local rules and procedures aid litigants in achieving swift resolution, clarity in the court’s expectations, and predictability in litigation. Like many court processes, the Rocket Docket’s speed and efficiency are undermined by litigants who do not follow the rules or who seek special accommodations, whether due to gamesmanship, inexperience, or failure to plan ahead. Like the rest of the world, the Rocket Docket continues to grapple with COVID-19 precautions.

To ensure that the Rocket Docket is able to continue with its speedy dispensation of justice, it is imperative that litigators be prepared for the court’s procedures, advise their clients of the risks and benefits of litigation in the Rocket Docket, and comply with the court’s tight deadlines. The Rocket Docket is one of the few places in the United States where a litigant can enjoy the predictability of having a matter heard and resolved in less than a year. The loss of that benefit would sorely disadvantage those who believe “Justice Delayed, Justice Denied,” in the words on the pedestal of the Blind Justice statue at the front door of the EDVA’s Alexandria Division courthouse.