Thursday, January 08, 2015



This article has nothing to do with the slayings in Paris, but like Wikileaks says, you ain't Charlie
unless you're ready to post the most offensive cartoons the dead cartoonists drew.

This article originally ran in the 1.8.15 issue of Metroland.

Don’t know about you, but I hardly use paper anymore.  When I opened my own law practice almost eleven years ago, I was going through paper like there was no tomorrow.  I bought big boxes of bulk printing paper, bought ink cartridges 5 at a time, had piles of envelopes, binders, staples, paper clips, multi-colored folders; I drove to warehouses and bought big filing cabinets; my most prominent pieces of office equipment were my printer, my shredder, and my 3-hole punch.  I had a small library of reference books.  My Staples reward card held the coveted first position in my wallet.

            Those days are long gone.  Almost everything I do, from correspondence, to court filings, to filings at the Patent and Trade Office, the Copyright Office and various state agencies, is all done on the internet.  With the notable exception of the Copyright Office, which hosts the most atrocious, clunky, and user-unfriendly online filing system ever devised, these sites typically provide seamless filing and payment systems.  This eliminates not just paper, but going to the post office or some government office building to hand something to a bored, lifeless civil servant. These days, if I use two little packages of printing paper a year, that’s a lot.  I haven’t opened a filing cabinet in months.  I use my 4-in-1 printer primarily to scan things into my computer.  If I need to fax something (a rarity), I scan it and use an online fax service.  Virtually all of my research is done online. I’ve moved my binder clips into the kitchen, and enlisted them for closing food packages.  It’s fabulous.  I can practice law from my couch, or anywhere that has wifi.

            It’s a minor annoyance when I learn I actually have to file a physical document somewhere.  What?  Are we living in the stone age here or what?  State and local court systems, chronically underfunded, are just now starting to transition to electronic filing, but it’s going oh-so-slowly.  Last year I had to do a state appellate filing that required me to produce something like 11 bound copies of my brief and the trial court record, literally thousands of pages, with special colored-paper covers, and some weird page numbering system.  I was tearing my hair out trying to get it all right, and then loaded up a couple of heavy boxes and drove them to the courthouse.  It was expensive, time-consuming, nerve-wracking and fundamentally unnecessary.  In my mind I could see the court clerks unbinding one copy of my filing, scanning it into the court’s computer system, and throwing everything else away.  It’s what I would do. 

            So, it’s with some excitement that I can report the U.S. Supreme Court just announced that it, too, was going to begin building an online filing system.  The Court is legendarily Ludditetic; several justices don’t use computers or even cellphones, they write draft briefs long-hand, they send hand-written notes to each other.  The Court’s severe lack of computer and digital literacy regularly goes on display when there’s an oral argument in a case involving high-tech issues—questions are garbled or nonsensical, and often a justice will admit, in open court, that he or she doesn’t understand what the case is about.  It’s kind of funny and extremely scary, when you consider that these are the folks with the final say in matters involving intellectual property, privacy, telecommunications, pretty much everything involving a high-tech world that they neither understand nor are active participants in.  Hopefully the Justices’ clerks, typically recent law-school grads, are a little more hep to that jazzy digital noise all the kids are so crazy about.  For now, they’re our only hope that the Court’s decisions will make any sense.

            Oh yeah, and you won’t get to see any of this embarrassing court behavior because the Supreme Court doesn’t allow broadcasts of its sessions.  Which is ridiculous and a whole ‘nother topic.

            But I digress!  The good news is that starting sometime next year, all filings to the Court will be done electronically as well as (for now) on paper.  While this won’t impact any of our day-to-day lives, the Court also promises to post all court filings on its website, where the public can see them for free.  Previously, we had to use hyper-expensive online services like Westlaw or Lexis to get these documents, or scrounge around online to see if anyone had posted them.

            To most of you, this must seem banal, and almost like reading something that was written 15 years ago.  But for legal-minded folk, it’s a big deal.  Huge-a! And maybe the efficiencies this will bring to the Court will breed a little bit of an understanding and appreciation on the part of the Justices about how the world actually functions these days.

Paul Rapp is an affable Berkshire Mountain lawyer who is about to find out what a -40 degree wind chill evening is like.


At 10:13 AM, Blogger Raymond Jacoub said...

The day cannot come soon enough when practitioners in state court may file pleadings electronically. And the Appeals Court anecdote is taken well. How is it, in this day and age of the internet and environmental concern, that courts still require multiple hard copies of briefs, properly spaced, properly colored (covers), and properly bound? It is an affront to to solo practitioners who typically have no staff and limited copy machine budgets. It's also offensive to anyone who cringes at following mundane rules. I've been there and done that, and I hate it.


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