Features – eFiling Comes of Age

Phil Ytterberg is Market Development Manager for WestFile ( tm ) at West Group. Mr. Ytterberg manages market development for the WestFile Electronic Filing Service, with responsibility for the legal and regulatory markets. He is a graduate of Tufts University and the Boston University School of Law. He regularly delivers presentations on electronic court filing at conferences and symposia nationwide, including faculty presentations for the National Center for State Court’s Institute for Court Management (ICM) and the National Practice Institute (NPI).

Scott Schumacher is Director for WestFile at West Group. As Director, Scott oversees the development and marketing programs for West Group’s electronic court filing initiative. Mr. Schumacher is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of San Diego School of Law. Prior to attending Law School, he worked as a computer programmer and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

Efiling, a topic much heard about and little seen may soon generate more light than heat. At legal technology trade shows and association meetings across the country, CLE courses and panel discussions have offered a glimpse at developments that may be on the verge of leaving the drawing board and landing on lawyers’ desktops.

At both the National Association of Court Managers (NACM) annual meeting in San Jose, Calif. in July, and the National Center for State Court’s (NCSC) Sixth Court Technology Conference (CTC6) in Los Angeles, Calif. in September, efiling was the center of attention. A large number of programs and vendor discussions were devoted to the topic, creating an ideal backdrop for demonstrating working models for efiling.

For years, many courts have served as beta-testing sites for various efiling approaches. Now, after much debate and refinement, a unique integrated model is emerging – and just may be the first success in the saga.

The Way of E-mail

E-mail was an early efiling contender, but fell short of expectations. All legal professionals can appreciate the value of e-mail; it’s simple, understandable and flexible. Because the vast majority of attorneys already have access to e-mail, filing this way appears at first glance an easy and cheap way to transmit documents from a desktop computer.

So, is efiling via e-mail simple? “Not really,” says Alan Slater, clerk of court and chief executive officer for Orange County, Calif. Superior Courts. “It’s really just another way to fax documents,” he says. “E-mail models may seem simple, but they completely fail to address issues of the court.”

To process documents are delivered via e-mail attachments, the courts must manage their operations as a giant “in-box”, write customized software to move the e-mail into their existing systems, or print each document and re-key data. Even so, court clerk has no automated way to prioritize filing, determine relevance to a case, or organize case materials and docketing information. For attorneys, the e-mail model makes in nearly impossible to access court documents, docket and calendar information, not to mention pay filing fees.

In the end, the e-mail model poses more questions than answers. It cannot take full advantage of Internet technologies such as XML for integration into existing systems within law firms and at the courthouse. So, rather than increase productivity, more work actually is generated for the courts and attorneys.

The Stand-Alone Model

An alternative to e-mail, many courts have used stand-alone or client-server approaches to attempt to receive more potential benefits from efiling. This model means attorneys and courts install special PC software and file to a server that is often under the control of a private service provider. They provide access to court information – if efilers fit a narrowly defined profile.

Stand-alone systems are tailored to support large cases, class-action size suits that are specific, involve many parties and promise to take months or years to resolve. Generally, courts only adopt this model if they are willing to mandate that all parties use the system. Under this condition, attorneys will benefit – filing fees can be paid and documents in those cases can be retrieved.

Although each case requires a separate and unique set of processes for filing, attorneys are high on the convenience this singular approach offers. On the other hand, Court administrators note the cumbersome nature of maintaining separate and incompatible systems. “Such systems are not well suited for the volume and variety of cases that pass through the average courthouse,” notes Slater. Additionally, since most attorneys are not technologists, they look to courts for technical support, training and upgrades – not within the usual course of court business.

The Integrated Model

E-mail and stand-alone efiling approaches bypass existing internal court and law office systems – failing to address the needs of both the courts and attorneys. By contrast, an integrated approach uses existing Internet technologies and conforms to processes developed in the courts and at law offices – providing the unique tools attorneys need to increase workflow efficiency. More importantly, integration provides an interface for filing and retrieving court information in a way that reflects the practice of law. For courts, documents and fees arrive and programmatically enter the case management system. Redundant data-entry tasks are eliminated, and documents are available on demand.

Timing is always an issue – courts and filers must be ready to take the technology leap. Attorneys need an electronic filing interface – a secure platform for completing transactions, paying court filing fees, arranging for service of process and accessing court documents. Courts need modern case management systems (CMS) and new document management systems (DMS). The DMS is a digital warehouse where data is permanently stored and accessible. The CMS is part of the court’s workflow management system. The CMS receives data, automates docketing, processes filing payments and operates between the efiling interface and the DMS.

The technology is available to make integrated efiling possible; at the same time attorneys’ level of comfort with technology is improving dramatically. A 1999 technology survey discovered that 94 percent of large law firms (16 or more attorneys) and 68 percent of mid-sized (2-15 attorneys) have access to the Web.

Today, the Internet is readily available, and widely used for legal research. This acceptance indicates the timing is right to add a robust electronic filing system. The benefits of complete integration extend beyond the particular case an attorney is working on – attorneys can access all court records – subject to the data access policies of each jurisdiction.

Integration in Action

Every year in Orange County, more than 680,000 cases are filed and adjudicated by 108 judges and 35 commissioners. “We want to make the judicial system more efficient, so we’re seeking time-and cost-saving methods for courtroom, chambers and clerk office operations as well as for agencies and attorneys,” says Slater. “Interest among the bench and bar has been escalating for many years.”

In 1997, the court engineered its own efiling system. “We soon realized that efiling imposes some serious demands,” Slater notes, referring to technical, marketing and customer service shortcomings uncovered in the pilot project. “Because these demands would put additional stress on our resources, we began seeking partners in private industry.”

The result is a public/private partnership between Orange County and West Group to build WestFile ™ , the nation’s first fully integrated efiling network. Because it is developed through a public/private partnership, no costs are incurred by the court beyond the basic technology infrastructure they have or plan to install, including the CMS provided by SCT Global Government Solutions.

Orange County Court administrators are actively involved in development to ensure the system addresses justice administration needs. Meanwhile WestFile developers are working with the California legal community to guarantee the service satisfies customer demands. When WestFile goes live next year, subscribers will use the Internet to send and access court documents, exchange information with clients and opposing counsel, arrange for fee payments, receive time-stamped notification of filed documents, arrange for service of process and research court information from their desktop computer.

Moving Forward

Attorneys have indicated they want simple, customized, interactive systems to improve law office management. However, courts need complex systems to manage information. Internet technologies including XML data infrastructure just may be the answer. An efiling network utilizing these technologies will enable court administrators and practitioners to integrate client, case, and docket information into both court and law office management systems.

Altering the focus of electronic filing from the simple “send data” approach to a more seamless “work solution” approach means an entirely new outlook on law office management in the future. Beyond efiling, the integrated model just may be the springboard for new applications that automate much more than data entry – networks that combine billing, client information tracking, scheduling and more.

The first time two computers were cabled together, the possibilities of efiling were imagined. Today the challenge lies not in transferring data but in eliminating redundancy and providing automated access to complex information systems.

Using web technology provides ubiquity as well as a high level of customization for subscribers. Giving customers what they want, how they want it is obviously a key success factor in any market. The new millennium will provide the first working efiling system to take full advantage of Internet technology and existing legal desktop applications to meet the needs of the judicial system and attorneys.

Posted in: Courts & Technology, Electronic Court Filing, Features