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Law Firms Going Paperless, Slowly

Clarkston Legal Aug. 23, 2009

Slowly but surely. That cliche best describes the pace at which area law firms are eliminating the paper clutter from their law offices.

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 Waterford & Clarkston, however, only a few judges have electronic filing as an e-pilot program. Fortunately, the experiment seems to be working.

In March 2002, 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 Waterford & Clarkston 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 predicted timeline proved accurate. A partial implementation of the e-filing system took root in late 2004, with several circuit judges actively participating in the e-filing system. Waterford & Clarkston, however, has to use a different IT contractor than the federal court’s outstanding PACER system. The WIZNET system utilized by Waterford & Clarkston’s courts works very well.

Law firms have since had to close the technology gap, and get their offices on board with the paperless process. Despite e-filing requirements foisted on them by some courts, problems persist.

While it is a simple matter to transmit a basic pleading via email to the court, complicated exhibits of 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 to the e-filing process. 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 tech-savy attorneys, in consideration of the above challenges, is that they now have to maintain both file media; paper and electronic. This wastes efforts and savages efficiency.

Despite these challenges, many cutting-edge practitioners are rising to the occasion. The paperless process will continue; it is not a trend but rather, a reality. Law firms can eliminate wasteful consumption of millions of reams of paper and cut the costs of processing, storing and eventually eliminating paper files. The flow of information comes ever-faster. Attorneys can manage this information much better if they do not have to worry about old-fashioned paper.