Volume 18, Number 4
June 2001

Electronica

A Fairy Tale

By Theda Snyder

Once upon a time, people lived in a place called Electronica. Not everyone in Electronica got along with everyone else, and the Electronica courts were very busy. Now, it happened that there was a law against putting words on paper in any fashion. But this was no obstacle to the lawyers in Electronica, because everything was done, as was the way with almost everything else in Electronica, electronically.

Lawyers created draft documents and follow-up instructions on their computers and notified others in the firm—some of whom worked from remote locations—by e-mail to access the documents for further processing. The computers had cameras and microphones, and sometimes follow-up meetings occurred online in real time. Lawyers conducted legal research from their computers no matter where they were. They could access Internet-based material and the firm’s knowledge management extranet database, which included how-to memoranda, firm-compiled judicial profiles, and a brief bank. Contracts were e-mailed among parties and lawyers and executed with electronic signatures.

When lawyers completed pleadings, they sent them to the Electronica court electronically. An Internet-based application automatically included the attorney’s identification number with the submission. When a new case was filed, the court electronically and automatically replied with a case number, the court assignment, and a protocol for electronically scheduling hearings for that court. Filing fees were low in Electronica. Each lawyer maintained a costs account that the clerk automatically debited upon receipt of filings requiring a fee, based upon the attorney number submitted. Pro se litigants submitted debit card information.

Judges received case assignments through electronic notification with an attached electronic file. As new documents were submitted, the judge could access them online. The judge’s terminal provided a personalized home page with a hyperlink to a display showing the status of all cases assigned to that judge and the calendar for the next five court days. A hyperlink from the name of a case to the documents to be reviewed for that hearing allowed convenient preparation. Daily, the judge conducted real-time hearings using the microphone and camera on the court computer. Orders were electronically posted within 24 hours. Judges could choose to work from home or the courthouse.

The clerk’s office in Electronica was very small, for there were no paper files or records. The public could access records remotely through the Internet at the court’s website. Everyone in Electronica had free wireless access to the Internet and an e-mail address with a domain of electronica.muni. Internet access was widely available through public kiosks. Citizens could also receive a free Zap Charge at the kiosks for their PDAs or notebooks.

The Electronica courthouse building had only a few courtrooms. As in other jurisdictions, about 96 percent of all cases settled before trial, so trial courtrooms were seldom needed. Only after all other procedures in a case were completed could a lawyer electronically schedule a case for trial, to start up to a month ahead. Judges used a "hoteling" system to use the available courtrooms, depending on which judge’s case had been scheduled for trial.

Each juror had an individual keyboard for note taking and a 17-inch display screen that was mounted on the jury box divider or the back of the seat in front. Voice recognition allowed simultaneous robotic translation of the court proceedings into various languages, with near-perfect accuracy, which was transmitted to juror headsets. Additionally, hearing-impaired jurors could choose to receive a volume-enhanced English transmission and/or subtitles on the display screen. Courtrooms were also electronically equipped to transmit PowerPoint or Corel Presentations displays to a large built-in screen, as well as to the jurors’ screens. Jurors could view the court’s instructions on a terminal in the jury deliberation room, and the foreperson would complete the verdict forms on the same terminal.

One day, a lawyer from Paperland tried to file a lawsuit in Electronica. He went to the clerk’s office, blue-backed complaint in hand. No one in the clerk’s office had ever seen paper put to this use; they did not know what to do with the complaint. There was no place to put such a thing in the clerk’s office, and no way to add it to the database for access by the judge and public. Someone suggested to the lawyer that he return to his office to scan the document for electronic submission, but the lawyer did not understand the procedure.

The lawyer returned to Paperland. He telephoned his client to explain what had happened and asked the client to come to his office in a few days to discuss alternative ways to proceed. But the client’s secretary called the lawyer’s office the day before the scheduled appointment, canceled, and said the meeting would not be rescheduled.

The client had been reading about Electronica and the benefits of living there. In fact, the client had been wondering if the client’s own business should move to Electronica. When the client heard the lawyer’s story about what happened, the client made a decision. The client accessed the Internet and within a few minutes had e-mailed a lawyer in Electronica about taking on the case.

The Paperland client hired the lawyer in Electronica. Documents were scanned, e-mails sent, and videoconferences held. The client achieved a favorable settlement. The fee was lower than the fees had been for a similar case handled by the Paperland lawyer. The client eventually moved to Electronica.

And they all lived happily ever after—except the Paperland lawyer. His firm broke up due to the dwindling Paperland client base.

 

Theda Snyder is in-house counsel with a major insurance company in Simi Valley, California, concentrating on law practice management issues. She is the author of Running a Law Practice on a Shoestring and Women Rainmakers’ 101+ Best Marketing Tips , both published by the American Bar Association. She can be reached at snydert@att.net.

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