A Paperless Office - Fact or Fiction
I really have no business complaining; my desk could never compare with those of the U.S. courts. Each year, the number of cases being filed increases, and, along with it, the amount of paper continues to grow. There have been promises to reduce those piles of paper—electronic filing, imaging and e-mail—but courts and lawyers have been slow, if not reluctant, to embrace such innovations. What is the current status of these promises, and where are those of us in the legal profession going?
For a number of years, a majority of bankruptcy courts have made dockets available through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). This allows for review of the dockets and general case information, but it doesn't allow for access to the documents themselves. In July 1997, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York implemented General Order #182 (entered nunc pro tunc to Nov. 25, 1996). It put into place the "procedures for the filing, signing and verification of documents by electronic means." It enables attorneys to electronically file pleadings and other documents by converting their documents to a PDF (portable document format) file, and then following the easy step-by-step guide for accessing the system and submitting the documents. (The user's manual for the S.D.N.Y.'s Electronic Filing System is available on the Internet at http://www.nysb.uscourts.gov.)
This system, originally used only for chapter 11 cases, was developed through a joint effort of the Technical Enhancement Office of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) and the S.D.N.Y. Currently, there are pilot projects in San Diego and Atlanta to test electronic filing in chapter 7 and 13 cases.
Will electronic filing eliminate the piles of paper on our desks and in our courts? "Paperless, probably not; paper-reduced, absolutely," says Cecelia Morris, clerk of the S.D.N.Y. Bankruptcy Court. "We are already seeing a reduction in the amount of paper." There are nine federal courts currently using the electronic filing system, five of which are bankruptcy courts. Morris points out that the bankruptcy courts are moving the most aggressively toward electronic filing, given the fact that bankruptcy is so "paper intensive." By the year 2001, the AOUSC will be offering the electronic filing system to every federal court in the nation. Surprisingly, our government is moving relatively quickly on this issue, but will law firms be ready for this change?
West Group, while developing its WestFile Electronic Filing Service, conducted a great amount of research to determine whether lawyers are mentally and technically prepared for such changes. Unfortunately, only 44 percent of the lawyers polled were even interested in electronic filing, and only 41 percent would consider using such a system. (See West Group's Electronic Filing Research Library at http://www.westfile.com/research.htm.) One reason why the interest in electronic filing is low could be that law firms have not utilized the Internet as quickly as other professions; 53 percent of those polled have had access to the Internet for only a year or less. For those who do have access, less than 19 percent have it at speeds of 56K or greater. The law is a profession steeped with great traditions and history; however, in today's rapidly changing world, if the government is surpassing you in computer technology, then something is amiss. "We are trying to change a culture," says Morris, and it is not an easy task. "Some firms are amazingly progressive," but there are many others that continue to drag their feet.
One firm that is clearly not dragging its feet with respect to technology is Hahn Loeser & Parks LLP of Cleveland. It is counsel for the Allegheny Health, Education and Research Foundation and four of its affiliates—the largest health care organization to ever file chapter 11. The Allegheny cases were filed in Pittsburgh, but most of the creditors and professionals, aside from local counsel, are scattered across the country. To solve this problem, Hahn Loeser & Parks created an online bankruptcy case document library—one of the first of its kind. Creditors can look at http://www.aherfch11.org to find up-to-date information about the proceedings, counsels' names and addresses, instructions for filing proofs of claim, the current status of motions that have been filed and more. In addition, interested parties can e-mail inquiries directly to the firm through the web site and have those questions answered without ever picking up the telephone.
The web is not the only saving grace in this case for Jean R. Robertson, an associate with Hahn Loeser & Parks. "In order to be an attorney with a regional practice, which is what is happening in the bankruptcy arena, you must utilize e-mail. I could not have accomplished as much as I have without using this amazing tool," Robertson said. "The clear majority of the documents filed in this case have traveled between cities with the click of a button. We have saved the debtors' estate an unquantifiable amount of money in telephone costs, paper, postage, delivery and, most important of all, time."
Hahn Loeser & Parks is already preparing itself for the future of federal practice. Robertson said that employees of the firm have recently attended electronic filing seminars in the Cleveland area. "We are looking forward to, and are excited about, the prospect of having electronic filing in the Northern District of Ohio. We want to be ready."
That future brings with it some ideas that will boggle the minds of those unwilling to change. "E-filing is a reality," said Phil Ytterberg, National Market Development manager for West Group's WestFile. "Viable systems will become readily available within the next two years. A nationwide system, accessible to all courts for anyone who wants to file something, will take five to 10 years to mature, although with the appropriate customer service, training, support and product integration, it could be much sooner."
To prepare for today's reality and tomorrow's future, Poorman-Douglas Corp. has created a claims processing and reconciliation system that is available through the Internet. The system allows the debtor, debtor's counsel and the court instant access to the claim and schedule information, and offers the ability to prepare customized reports. More importantly, it provides a secure database to the debtor and debtor's counsel for reconciliation. All the reconciliation requirements can be done without affecting the claim information that is required by the court.
This system has been designed with the future in mind. "This is just the beginning of what will someday be a common workflow system," says Eric Sterling, one of the system's creators. "One day, very soon, we will be replacing PDF documents with XML (Extensible Market Language) documents. XML is essentially a language that creates intelligent documents that can do the work for you." Simply put (if any of this technology could ever be considered simple), an attorney could file an objection to a claim indicating that claim number 123 should be expunged. When the judge signs that order, the signed document actually speaks to the claims database and expunges the claim. It is incredible, but actually possible.
Technology is both frightening and exciting. It has changed and will continue to change the way that the legal profession conducts business. We will be faster, more proficient and streamlined. More importantly, I may once again see my beautiful desk.