Law Firms Going Paperless, Slowly
As Southeast Michigan touts innovations such as "Automation Alley", the sluggish pace of paper elimination is frustrating to many legal practitioners. Colorado and a handful of other states already have state-wide paperless court systems. The federal courts have been paperless for years. In Oakland County, however, only a few judges have electronic filing as an e-pilot program. Fortunately, the experiment seems to be working.
In March 2003, Judge Joan E. Young, then the chief judge of the Oakland Circuit's family court, offered a standing-room-only presentation on the timeline for the court's so-called e-filing system. The audience consisted of attorney members of the Oakland County Bar Association, and courthouse staffers. In her presentation, Judge Young cautiously predicted that e-filing would be in place, in some form, by the end of 2004. She warned, however, that budget issues, tech contracts and other variables could slow the process.
Judge Young's timeline proved accurate and her concerns, well-founded. A partial implementation of the e-filing system took root in late 2004, with several circuit judges actively participating in the e-filing system. After lengthily budget debates, Oakland County hired a different IT contractor than the federal court's outstanding PACER system. The WIZNET system, selected by the Oakland County courts, works very well. Unlike PACER, however, users "pay per use" when accessing documents. PACER is free.
During the past 18-months, law firms have attempted to close the technology gap, and get their offices on board with e-filing. Despite court-ordered e-filing requirements, problems persist.
While a simple matter to transmit a basic pleading via email to the court and parties, complicated exhibits in a variety of sizes and shapes pose challenges. Also, some tribunals (such as case evaluators and mediators) will not accept e-filings. Some attorneys have not upgraded their Adobe Acrobat programs, essential for e-filing compatibility. Other attorneys cling to hard-copy files as a form of legal security blanket. Still other attorneys, incredibly, do not have computers. Many insurance defense attorneys refuse to sign stipulated orders with an agreed upon electronic protocol for filing pleadings and transmitting documents.
Perhaps the biggest frustration for attorneys is they have to maintain both file media, paper and electronic, while they wait for the "standard of care" to catch-up. This wastes effort and savages efficiency.
Despite these challenges, some cutting-edge practitioners are rising to the occasion. The paperless-file is not a trend but rather, reality. Law firms can eliminate wasteful consumption of paper and cut the costs of processing, storing and eventually eliminating paper files.
The flow of information comes ever-faster in the modern law office. Attorneys can manage this information much better if they do not have to worry about old-fashioned paper.