Volume 18, Number 6
Changing the Rules and the Work Flow
By Christy Hubbard
Many firms still handle cases much like lawyers did in the nineteenth century, with the exception that the fax or internal combustion engine has replaced the Pony Express for faster delivery of materials. Now, though, courts and firms are looking to e-filing to streamline submission and management of case files and dockets.
Paper-based legal processes have proved to be inefficient and costly, and they offer no signs of improving in the future. They simply promise more paper, more storage, and more headaches as materials are misplaced, clerks sift through warehouses of information, and lawyers wait as another party reviews the only documents on file for a particular case. It's no wonder then that e-filing rapidly is gaining acceptance among courts, law firms, and corporate counsel.
Already, many federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, encourage the e-filing of entire case files and dockets in Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF). The U.S. federal courts' e-filing system, which is called Case Management/Electronic Case File (CM/ECF), is currently in place at 12 bankruptcy and six district courts. Eventually, CM/ECF will be rolled out to all 200 federal courts nationwide.
State and local courts have also opened their doors to e-filing and are following the federal model of adopting Adobe PDF as their document exchange standard. For example, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas all welcome case materials in PDF. At the same time, county courts are beginning to accept case documents in PDF along with-or in some cases, in lieu of-paper copies.
From the courts' perspective, arguments in favor of e-filing are convincing. Submitting a 90-page appeal with 100,000-plus pages of testimony to an appellate court is cumbersome, to say the least. Using Adobe Acrobat software, the same information can be converted to compact PDF files, fit easily on a single CD-ROM, and be stored securely online for all interested parties to view. This eliminates many costs, hassles, and delays at the appellate court charged with managing and archiving the paper files. Moreover, outside parties have around-the-clock access to materials. Suddenly, information is available when lawyers and judges work, not just when the courts are open.
"The Internet and Web software are changing the possibilities for managing and sharing legal materials," says Michael Greenwood, program manager of the CM/ECF project. "It's no secret that the legal industry is usually one of the last to adopt new technologies. Fortunately, ready access to the Internet and the ease of using most Web applications are encouraging law firms to rethink how they work." The CM/ECF system is a step in the right direction, allowing the federal courts to streamline courthouse procedures, reduce staff docketing and document filing time, and lessen case participants' photocopying and document shipping costs.
A look at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York illustrates the benefits of e-filing. Until a few years ago, law firms in that district could submit their clients' bankruptcy filings only on paper. When the public requested information, paper copies could be obtained pursuant to the fees set out in 28 U.S.C. § 1930. Now, lawyers can submit documents to the court via an interactive Web application. First, law firms use Adobe Acrobat (or Acrobat Capture software if the documents exist only on paper) to convert materials to PDF files. Second, they access the court's website via a standard browser and enter a security code to log onto a database that will store the materials. The Web-based application then prompts the user to upload the PDF files to the court's secure database.
For individuals looking to review case documents, retrieving information is just as simple. Interested parties go to the website and select the case docket-which lists all activities and documents associated with the case-and click a link to view or print the PDF files of interest. Each searchable PDF file can easily be located and looks exactly like the on-paper original.
"E-filing makes it easier for the courts and our constituents to manage and access information," explains Kathleen Farrell, clerk for the bankruptcy court. "Since March 15, 2000, all of our open cases-approximately 30,000-have been moved online. Now lawyers and the public can respond to their own requests for information by going to our Website and finding in minutes the materials that they need." Simply by entering a few keywords, interested parties can sift quickly through tens of thousands of pages of case materials in searchable PDF files. This is a stark contrast to the hours people previously spent searching through file cabinets full of paper.
As courts move to e-filing and more legal documents go online, two of the biggest concerns are document integrity and security. Central to the credibility of any argument is the integrity of the information presented. Documents that can be altered or appear one way on paper and another way on screen can, and should, be quickly dismissed.
Acrobat and PDF offer courts and lawyers the ability to securely accept and share case materials electronically. The PDF files can be password protected and locked, ensuring that only permitted users have access to files and that file content cannot be changed in any way. In addition, document integrity is one of the main reasons federal and state courts became such early adopters of Adobe Acrobat. Adobe PDF maintains the integrity of any document, regardless of the source. It also offers much needed flexibility for document delivery, so that materials can be e-mailed, downloaded from file servers, or printed directly from court websites.
With PDF, all the fonts, graphics, and other elements of a document remain unchanged, regardless of the application and platform used to create or view materials. The only difference is that materials that once were confined to boxes in storage rooms are now electronically searchable and can be carried on laptops, viewed over the Web, or stored on legal intranets for teams of lawyers to access simultaneously. All that's needed to share, view, navigate, and print the files is the free Acrobat Reader software.
The efficiencies-lower document storage costs, faster access to materials, and easier document management all around-haven't gone unnoticed by law firms. While some firms lag behind on the technology curve, others are aggressively incorporating the courts' electronic approaches into their own work flows. It stands to reason that if county, state, and federal courts can find information faster and spend less money handling documents, law firms can realize the same benefits.
"There are two ways of looking at this," says Joel Rothman, a shareholder in the Florida firm of Seiden, Alder, Rothman, Petosa & Matthewman. "One is that I make the judges' and file clerks' jobs easier-and perhaps make my case look stronger-when trial documents can be searched electronically. The other is the benefit to our firm. We get advantages from having compact, fully searchable case files on hand. We can share the documents on our server or carry them with us on our laptops wherever we go."
Many firms are adopting automated work flows and are using Adobe Acrobat Capture software to convert thousands of paper-copy documents to searchable PDF. In addition, newer documents written by lawyers in-house are converted to PDF using Acrobat and posted on intranets for all members of a legal team to access. At some firms, teams of lawyers search for and share case information in PDF over secure intranets, accomplishing in a couple of hours research that previously took days or weeks.
The question for law firms is not whether they should adopt an electronic work flow, but how it can be accomplished most easily. Some firms are moving all documents-even older ones that are in storage-online, while others are focusing only on documents that already exist as electronic copies. Either way, courts' willingness to accept documents electronically is changing the way lawyers think about the volumes of paper that cross their desks.
According to Rothman, the move to more automated work flow and e-filing is inevitable, if not rapid. "We're busy, and many of us don't have the time to sit around and learn complicated new technologies," he explains. "The courts definitely understand this and are now offering better ways of working together that not only benefit them but benefit us as well."
Christy Hubbard is product marketing manager for Adobe Systems.
This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 10 of Law Practice Management, April 2001 (27:3).