VirtualCourthouse – Issue 5.4
Past, Present and Future
Judge Arthur M. Monty Ahalt ( Ret.) – October 2000
This Article was first published in the Prince George’s County, Maryland Journal/Newsletter
Over the past 5 years remarkable steps have been taken by the legal community to join the INFORMATION AGE. The struggle has not been easy at times mainly because of the professional necessity for stability – as the principle of stare decisis demands. Change is also difficult because so much of today’s work is dependent on yesterday’s work, which is almost always in paper form. The past keeps reminding everyone of the difficulty and the significance of the need to convert paper processes to electronic processes. During the last 12 months I have been traveling the country as Chief Industry Advisor for CourtLink and JusticeLink in an effort to help bring the INFORMATION AGE to the legal community. I have traveled over 100,000 miles, talked to lawyers, judges, clerks, administrators, law librarians and technologists in California, Washington, Oregon, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Ohio. The amount of interest in the legal community about learning how to use technology to further each person’s mission is truly astounding. Just one small example. The National Center for State Court’s Institute for Court Management presents an annual Electronic Filing Seminar – attendance in past years was usually under 30 people. Last year they had to turn away over 100 applicants and are planning an Electronic Filing super session later this year. See. www.ncsc.dni.us/ef2000.htm . This article will address the questions: Where have we been? Where are we now? and Where are we going? PAST Where have we been? An antiquated, slow and inefficient paper process has encumbered the past. There are, however, many factors that inhibit and deter a true coordination of all of the elements necessary to allow for the virtualization of the legal profession. The people involved in the legal process and traditional legal institutions, and the types of information needed are all variables that prevent the legal world from solving its problems by electronic means. The participants (the people) in the legal process are the largest barriers to virtualization of legal institutions. The litigants and their lawyers are a barrier because of their geographical diversity, political diversity and institutional diversity. They have competing goals and are usually participating in an adversarial capacity. The litigants do business and have disputes in different cities, different counties, different states, different regions and even different nations. No individual court, legislator or executive has authority to compel his or her methods of work in all venues. The courts where disputes are resolved are also geographically, politically and institutionally diverse. There are federal courts, state courts and county courts. Each court is created by a separate constitution and separate legislation. Each court is also funded by a different executive/legislative budget process. County courts in some states are funded entirely by the state budget, while others are financed only by the county budget. Some courts even receive funding by a combination of state and county budgets. It is said by some that ” if you know one court, you know one court” and the same can be said about a law office, ” if you know one law office, you know one law office” Although they all do the same thing -they do the same thing differently.The past has been dominated by the notions: 1. That legal institutions believe they are paper driven when in fact they are process driven; 2.Limited electronic public access; 3. Fragmented vision and stakeholders fights; 4. Fewer resources-greater needs; 5. Few change sponsors; 6. Resistance to change; 7. A plea for standards; and 8. Y2K distraction of time and money. PRESENT Where are we now? Currently the legal community is slowly beginning to realize that their insistence on doing it “my way” is not only costing them in the court of public opinion, but also in the pocket book. The quickly evolving methods of doing eBusiness and eCommerce in other endeavors are also obviously having a favorable impact. Litigants and government policy makers are starting to insist that new solutions be used instead of the old costly paper process. There has also been a dramatic change in the state of readiness of both the courts and law firms of the nation. The remarkable acceleration of the state of readiness is attributable to several factors. According to Ronald W. Staudt, Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law who participated in the London ABA Annual Meeting session – Wiring the Legal Profession for the 21st Century -networked, e-mail ready computers on legal professionals desks has jumped from 7% in 1985 to 90% in2000. Likewise Internet use on legal professionals desktops has increased from 7% in 1995 to 90% in 2000. Concurrently, with the increase of computer availability is the release of money, emotion and time, which were encumbered by the Y2K problem and solutions. Along with the dramatic improvement and availability of technological infrastructure there has also evolved the beginnings of shared information through the World Wide Web-the Internet. Clients, lawyers and courts are also beginning to share information through web based technologies such as intranets and extranets The current age is occupied by: 1.Experimentation by pioneers; 2.Expanded public access; 3.Fragmented courthouse and law office technologies; 4. Technology evolutionary explosion; 5.Privacy hand wringing; 6.Public private partnership success; 7. Industry standards progress and consensus; and 8. Increasing number of change sponsors. FUTURE Where we are going? The progression of the legal community into the INFORMATION AGE has followed the path of: i. building a technological infrastructure (the past); ii.sharing information (the present); and iii.managing knowledge (the future). Professor Richard Susskind, the author of The Future of Law http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0198764960/ < qid=969395848/sr=1-1/002-2454498-3905649> and a noted authority on the future of legal institutions puts it this way, ” In all, then, I expect that traditional legal service will continue to play a major role in society but it will come to be delivered more quickly, at a lower cost, with greater consistency of approach and to a higher quality. Professor Susskind goes on to say that there will be a “disintermediation of legal advisers, whether in-house when firms recognize they need less legal staff for the delivery of service that can be systematized or, worse still, when entire legal tasks are pre-packaged, productised and available on the World Wide Web without the direct involvement of any lawyer or firm.” The Future of Legal Practice, Wiring the Legal Profession in the 21st Century, American Bar Association – 2000 Annual Meeting, London, England. The immediate future will demonstrate: 1. Public private partnership acceptance; 2.Standards adoption by the industry or the market; 3.Courthouse and law office technology integration; 4.Creation of the electronic case file; 5.Open integrated digital pathway to and from the courthouse; 6. The business of dispute resolution and the law office will become a part of e-commerce. This article first appeared on pro2net.com Previous articles are available at www.montyahalt.com/articles/vc/vc.htm .