Patricia Goodrich is the Justice Department's traffic cop.

Her job is a tribute to the litigious nature of modern America. They had to create it about three years ago to keep track of all the lawsuits the government now finds itself litigating.

"When a bank fails, we get sued; when an airliner crashes, we get sued," Goodrich said in an interview in her office the other day. "The government is involved in defending cases that range from the misapplication of swine flu vaccine to malpractice cases involving hospitals run by the Veterans' Administration."

The swamped department responded to these lawsuits by making attorney Goodrich assistant director of the executive office for U.S. attorneys to keep tabs on the 1,900 lawyers in 94 American cities who argue the federal side of lawsuits. That's no easy task. In 1980, the Justice Department found itself involved in a record number of 97,205 cases, more than two-thirds of which were civil cases.

And it's not just citizens suing the government. For the first time in memory, the Justice Department is arguing more civil cases in which it is the plaintiff instead of the defendant. No fewer than 34,051 of the civil suits are cases where Justice is plaintiff. In fewer than 30,000 of the cases is Justice the defendant. The rest of the 67,085 civil cases are appeals and cases where Justice is involved but neither as plaintiff or defendant.

The civil cases involve almost $5 billion in disputed claims. The federal government is suing individual Americans and companies for almost $429 million. Individuals and companies are suing the government for a staggering $4.347 billion, almost $3 billion of which are tort claims, by a citizen whose car was hit by a mail truck, for example, or whose boat went aground in a channel dredged and marked by the federal government.

"I guess we reflect the same trend you see in the rest of the country between private individuals," Goodrich said. "We're suing people and getting sued more often. It's a sign of the times."

To hear Goodrich tell it, the most dramatic change has come in civil cases where the government is the defendant. Time was (1963) when Justice defended federal agencies in court in fewer than 5,000 cases a year. That doubled by 1972, then sextupled by 1979, when the number of civil cases where Justice was the defendant rose to more than 30,000 for the first time.

This increase in suits where the government is defendant also reflects the number of laws Congress has passed and regulations federal agencies have promulgated in recent years. Companies are challenging Environmental Protection Agency regulations, individuals are challenging Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rules, individuals are suing the Internal Revenue Service for what they're convinced are tax overpayments.

"Create a program," said former Justice Department attorney Donald Horowitz, "and the lawsuits follow close behind."

In this era of high crime, however, the number of criminal cases in which the Justice Department is involved has been declining since 1972. One reason is that the FBI is no longer responsible for stolen cars or bank robberies unless called in on the case. Goodrich also points out that the end of the Vietnam war brought an end to criminal prosecutions of draft evaders and deserters, who made up between 4,000 and 5,000 of Justice's criminal caseload at the peak of the Vietnam conflict.

Before going to Justice, Goodrich worked as a computer systems analyst for the Veterans' Administration while putting herself through Georgetown University Law School. She had been at Justice only a year when she was tapped for the job of keeping tabs on the department's growing caseload. Her first job was to streamline the system used for the last 30 years, a system that does little more than record statistics.

"The U.S. attorneys' offices have been run in the era of the quill pen for a long time," Goodrich said. "The system they've been using to manage their attorneys' time is a laborious and ancient system that does nothing for them."

Goodrich cites as a classic example the U.S. attorney's office in Miami, where Cuban and Haitian refugee cases, drug smuggling cases and civil rights cases swamped the 49 lawyers in that office. A couple of weeks ago, the Miami office did an inventory of its caseload by hand and produced a volume three inches thick for Goodrich to ponder.

"Their point was well taken," Goodrich said. "A week ago, we raised them from 49 to 59 lawyers."

Goodrich has under way a pilot program in the U.S. attorneys' offices in Newark, San Diego, Charleston, W.Va., and Burlington, Vt., to bring Justice into today's computerized world. Each office uses minicomputers to keep track of its lawyers, their cases and their whereabouts. Goodrich said Justice is two years away from putting all 94 field offices on the new system, but that a step in the right direction has been made.

"What we're trying to do is to get control of the court calendar," Goodrich said, "so that we know who's working on what case and where to put our people so that everybody doesn't have trials and court appearances scheduled at the same time."

In part, that's to fill a local need for the 1,900 U.S. attorneys in the field, who have none but the most rudimentary way of keeping track of themselves right now.There's another reason for putting in the new system. It's called explaining things to Congress, the White House and the Office of Management and Budget.

"We need a new system so we can convince Capitol Hill and the president that we're representing the government well," Goodrich said. "We also need it to argue for more resources in areas where the caseloads are going up or where they're going down, like in the criminal area, that the cases are becoming more complex and require more attorney time per case."

Goodrich concluded: "The department is getting into white-collar crime, fraud, drug traffic and complex multidefendant schemes. There's just no way we can keep track of things with quill pens anymore."