The E-Future of
The next time you wander through a store wondering which computer, palmtop or fax machine--or even what kind of paper or pen--to buy, remember that it could be worse. You could be a judge, having to decide--right now, in a massive, paper-intensive case, among a myriad of vendors and options--whether to allow electronic filing of documents in your court for the first time. And everyone filing documents will have to live with, and thus will criticize, whatever decision you make.
Bradley J. Hillis, a lawyer in Washington state who has analyzed electronic filing for years, says that the move toward e-filing is like water flowing downhill: It's inevitable.
But there are many paths for the drops to take. Should the familiar Big Two--Lexis-Nexis and West Group--handle all of a court's filings? How about a smaller company that might be less expensive--such as JusticeLINK, LawPlus or Sensei Enterprises? (Some of these companies may have merged or changed names by presstime.) And there's always Microsoft and its partners. Or perhaps the court could devise its own system, using the Internet.
"It's chaos," says Tom O'Connor, a court relations consultant at Bellevue, Washington's CourtLink, at www.courtlink.com, whose company is not involved in e-filing. "E-filing is too unsettled," he says. "We just want to provide access to the documents after they're filed. If a Texas court wants to use LawPlus because that company is based in Beaumont, that's fine with us." If a Delaware court wants to go with Lexis' Complex Litigation Automated Docket system (CLAD) because there are already two CLAD installations in the state--one for insurance coverage cases, and one for asbestos litigation--that's fine, too.
But if each court goes its own way, attorneys may have to invest in different programs and learn different systems if they're handling cases in more than one court. Already, those familiar with CLAD are bracing themselves for Lexis' new Web-based filing system.
West is anticipating the difficulties attorneys may encounter and has established an electronic filing service, www.westfile.com, which will file any document, anywhere. West Group Vice President Steven Daitch refers to it as an "Igor the Messenger" service: Much like a messenger carrying a paper document, it can go to any court.
There is a silver lining to the dizzying array of choices. As more vendors compete for courts' filing business--United Parcel Service may soon enter the fray--prices may drop. Would you like fries with your filing?
As judges, techies, consultants and technology committee members reach for the aspirin, it's important to emphasize the disadvantages of the current, paper-based system. "I talk to courts about the incredible cost of storing paper. Look at the savings when you use computer storage" to file electronic documents, says James E. McMillan, the director of the Court Technology Project at Williamsburg, Va.'s National Center for State Courts.
Mr. McMillan meets regularly with court personnel to discuss options. "We're definitely in a transition period," he says, though a move to a new standard language, XML, may make choices easier. "We're still just trying to get attorneys and courts connected."
Certainly, costs are coming down, he says. "For $200, you can store 12 to 16,000 pages in a file cabinet. Last fall, for $200, I saw an eight gigabyte hard disk that could hold 200,000 scanned pages. But this weekend, I saw a 12 gigabyte disk for $149--that's another 100,000 pages! Every two weeks, I have to give a new example."
Technology changes quickly, but courts move slowly. "Between decisions by technology committees, rules committees, judicial conferences...there is some real organizational dysfunctionality in the decision-making process," e-mails James Keane, a litigation systems analyst in Potomac, Md., who is working on a nationwide review of e-filing for the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorneys. Courts also reap revenue from photocopying costs, sums which may be jeopardized by electronic filing.
Sharon D. Nelson, president of Fairfax, Va.'s Sensei Enterprises, says that she worked closely with the clerk of the court to ensure that the court "owns" the system her company built. "Do we really want our courts to have electronic filing systems that they do not own, administer, control and understand? Are we prepared to put Bill Gates in charge of our legal records?" she asks.
Progress is apparent. In March, Utah became the first court to use e- filing with digital signatures. Now in its pilot stage, the system is used only by prosecutors. Go to http://courtlink.utcourts.gov/ecabinets and click on "XChange." D. Brent Israelsen, a lawyer and the president of iLUmin, handled the project with Microsoft Corp.
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt lists court projects involving electronic filing at his "Virtual Courthouse," online at www.mdlaw.net/efile.htm.
This article is reprinted with permission from the April 12, 1999 edition of The National Law Journal. © 1999 NLP IP Company. LawNewsNetwork.com.