E-filing rides to rescue and ... stumbles

Imagine if O.J. Simpson's criminal trial had lasted only seven months instead of nine.

Prosecutor Marcia Clark's tell-all book would have hit bookstores earlier. O.J. could have hit the golf course earlier. And nearly $5 million in taxpayer money could have been saved.

Sound far-fetched? Think again.

If Judge Lance Ito's court had been fitted with an electronic-document filing system, every last one of the 435 court documents could have been sent and stored in digital form - instead of being sent by courier, then retyped into the court computer system, and finally filed somewhere in the court's basement.

E-filing wouldn't simply mean quicker trials, though, it would also save US courts from drowning in oceans of paper. Each year, more than 2 billion pages of legal documents are filed across the country. And courthouses are running out of storage space.

Already, a handful of courts have implemented e-filing systems, which experts say will drastically change the way courts and attorneys conduct business.

The only problem: Lawyers and judges are creatures of habit. When it comes to litigation, most prefer paper.

"The legal profession is grounded in deep tradition," says Jim Klein, a spokesman for SCT, an e-filing software developer based in Kentucky. "A major part of their tradition is to embrace new technologies at a snail's pace. But when courts realize they need to make the transition, watch out - software companies are going to cash in big time and the legal profession will be turned on its head."

Mr. Klein predicts that it may take five to 10 years for all courts to switch from paper to e-filing systems.

Saving time and money

Throughout the country, e-filing would save taxpayers incalculable time and enormous amounts of money say efficiency experts. A 1997 study by a court in Shawnee County, Kan., and published by the National Center for State Courts, found that e-filing would save about 10 work hours for every 100 documents filed.

Technologically speaking, it's not a herculean task to change over to e-filing systems. But critics say there are a host of problems that may prevent any e-filing system from becoming widespread soon.

*Support within the profession is not as strong as it needs to be. "E-filing systems require more than just the technology to do the job," says David Ritter, director of Government Services for Document Authentication Systems Inc. "The technology must be supported by statutory and administrative rules that define the acceptable standards for filing documents electronically."

*E-filing systems are expensive. Most courts are strapped for cash. "Many courts would like to switch over to e-filing systems, but they don't have the money," says Judge Allen Slater, chief executive officer of Orange County, Calif.

*No two e-filing systems are alike. And some aren't compatible with others. This has resulted in many companies rushing to develop and market e-filing systems, hoping that theirs will become the industry standard. Software giant Microsoft is even elbowing into the e-filing industry.

Mr. Ritter says many of these problems will vanish with the enactment of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and the finalization this summer of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act for state governments, which will set the stage for the rapid deployment of e-filing systems in many jurisdictions. Many states, however, have already enacted enabling legislation and are, under those laws, beginning to expand their ability to receive electronic filings.

E-filing pilot projects allowing Internet access to court files are currently under way in the US District Court and Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Texas, the Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of California, and the US District Court for South Dakota.

Paper's high cost

Electronic filing will be adopted only if it saves money and time for both courts and practitioners. West Law's market research shows that it costs the average attorney about $25 to assemble and print out a court document to be filed; messenger costs range between $12 and $18.

With 14 million state civil cases, and perhaps a million federal cases, there is a market to be conquered.

But some companies have already given up on trying to peddle their e-filing systems. Andersen Consulting and Ameritech have pulled the plug, as profit margins were too slim and attorney usage too low.

Nowhere is the battle to change from metal filing cabinets to e-filing more heated than in Los Angeles, which has a long history of setting precedents.

The largest e-filing project - eCourt - was implemented in Los Angeles Superior Court a few months ago. The system will ultimately link judges, lawyers, and the public to millions of legal documents.

"If the court files eventually become fully searchable, then the expertise of everyone will be available to the general public," Ritter says. "This would impact the profession by giving everyone - not just lawyers and judges - access, too."

He adds: "Those attorneys and assistants who make the courthouse their working space will see e-filing transform how they do business. The result should be improved client service." However, Ritter says, many citizens and businesses will be able to directly access information which they often relied upon attorneys to provide. "So, it is unlikely the attorney will continue as an information intermediary. Instead, they will work harder at the essential legal services for which attorneys are valued."

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