Yesterday, I noticed that there is a proposed rule from the State Bar of Georgia to provide for electronic filing in Georgia courts. Of course, it’s just a proposed rule (PDF). And what comes of it may be simply a model rule for trial courts to follow if they choose to allow electronic filing. But it also might be light at the end of the tunnel for lawyers like me who are way sick of paper. In fact, the way trial courts work right now in the handling of documents is enough to make me want to poke my eyeballs out with a spoon. It’s not exactly fun to figure out a way to get a physical document to some distant land by 5:00 tomorrow to meet a deadline on a motion for new trial or habeas matter, and e filing would fix it. It’s also not fun to file a document in the courthouse basement and wonder how or when the judge on the case might learn of it.

In the late 1980s, when I was in high school, I worked for a law firm as their courier. My job was to go to various courthouses and file documents with various clerks, get the file stamp, and take physical copies to opposing counsel. The process seemed almost quaint then.

This year, I am approaching my 20-year high school reunion. And we’re still handling documents the exact same way in trial courts. Assembling the record for appeal, with a few exceptions, is still exactly the same process that it was the year the Titanic sank. I’m not sure what the issue is. Part of it is that lawyers can be un-innovative. For instance, what other profession is still using fax machines?

A uniform rule for e filing is, I hope, a step toward mandatory e filing in the future. Perhaps, then, I can retire the postage meter, and getting a leave of absence for a trip to Disney World or the filing of a conflict letter won’t burn a whole day every week for an assistant. It’ll have to be mandatory though. There are over 150 counties and Georgia and a blue million lawyers. Most will have to be sent kicking and screaming into the e filing era.

At the State Bar’s annual meeting, Chief Justice Hunstein announced that the Supreme Court of Georgia will require e filing there by the end of the summer and will soon move to the second phase of their e filing initiative to provide for the transmission of electronic records from trial courts.

My operation is paperless. I take notes on my iPad, my phone, or my laptop, and I maintain electronic files with a system for dealing with text notes and pdfs. It works great except for a few sets of occasions in my practice. One is when I visit an inmate in the prison system at a facility that won’t let my iPad or laptop in. You’ll see me often in distant lands buying convenience store paper and pen. The second is when I am in court and need to use paper with a witness or to fill out paperwork (you’ll see me borrowing pens a lot). The third is when I have any case in Butts County, Monroe County, or Lamar County where they equate electronic devices on par with weapons and refuse to allow anything but paper files in. The other is when I am working with co-counsel or opposing counsel that fetishizes paper (which is most of the bar, unfortunately).

The proposed rule will hopefully move us toward a system of file management throughout Georgia that is, if not in the 21st century, will at least be circa 1999.

Two days at the annual meeting of the State Bar of Georgia in Myrtle Beach have given me enough material for a week of blogging. For today, the big news is that the Supreme Court will mandate e-filing for all attorneys before the end of the summer and will create a system for submission of appellate records in electronic form. E-filing was also the talk of the Appellate Practice Section luncheon, with Judge Keith Blackwell discussing the need for a a uniform system for indexing the record on appeal.

Kathleen Joyner, with the Fulton Daily Report, shared a story of some matters I e-filed with the Supreme Court of Georgia on my way out here (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving)

printing press.jpgBen Kerschberg, wrote yesterday about his experience as a paralegal in the mid-90s in the appellate litigation section of Sidley Austin. More particularly, he wrote about the process of getting briefs ready to file in the United States Supreme Court in the pre-pdf era. True, the technology has now developed to the extent that it is possible to produce professional qualify printed documents from a desktop computer and printer. Indeed, a book like Typography for Lawyers wouldn’t have even been relevant to the appellate bar a decade ago. Many of the concepts in a book such as that would have been lost on almost everyone except graphic artists and printers. 

But, in Mr. Kerschberg’s account of going to a professional printer and preparing appellate briefs for filing (granted, a US Supreme Court appellate practice is unlike any other appellate practice), I can’t help but wonder if the improvements in technology haven’t taken some of the craft out of being an appellate lawyer. We’re now wearing the hat of professional printer and lawyer. And we weren’t necessarily trained to be printers.

Take a look at his blog post and see if you don’t start feeling nostalgic for a time in history that really wasn’t all that long ago (during the Clinton administration, to give you a sense of how recent it was). My takeaway from it is that every brief, even and perhaps especially today, should be crafted and not merely written. 

typography.jpgSome weeks back I wrote about whether lawyers should write for the screen or for the page in the era of e-filing (you can e-file in the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals now). It turns out that there is a way to hedge your bets, at least in terms of font selection. Kendall Gray, over at The Appellate Record, has teamed up with Matthew Butterick (I wrote about his excellent book earlier) to figure out the best fonts to choose when your appellate panel may either print your brief out or read it on the screen. Part 1 gives you the short answer. Part 2 gives you the even nerdier explanation (and nerd is not a perjorative term spoken from this law-nerd).

The answer is that, as long as you are submitting your brief as a pdf, you don’t have to use a screen-optimized font. Now, as to what font is best for a brief, take a look at Typography for Lawyers. It’s even reviewed over at MacSparky, my very favorite law-nerd sight (David Sparks doesn’t focus on the fact that he’s a lawyer, but it comes out a lot in his writing and in his Mac Power Users Podcast).

Clerk's Office.JPGI have been E-filing in the Georgia Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court since both courts started offering it. I can’t tell you enough about how great it is to be able to upload a pdf rather than do all of the other archaic stuff that is involved in paper filing a brief. I’m still pretty amazed that so much of the practice of law involves printing out stuff on bond paper, making a blue million copies, physically taking it to the courthouse to get a stamp on it, then transmitting physical copies of the paper to people. I like Atticus Finch, but I’m not all about filing things the way he did when he filed motions in limine in Mississippi v. Tom Robinson.

In fact, there is one Georgia courthouse that is so anti-technology that even lawyers can’t bring laptops or smartphones into the courthouse. They have big ugly yellow signs at all the entrances warning you not to bring “that kinna stuff in heah.” When I leave there, I always think that the world is going to turn black and white, and I start craving a malted at the drug store soda counter.

So, I am really not whining about the fact that the Supreme Court does it better than the Court of Appeals. I’m just glad that they’re doing it at all.

So, a few weeks in for the Supreme Court and a few monhs in for the Court of Appeals is a good time to compare the two systems.

  • Instructions — The Supreme Court gets the nod here. Their website includes instructional videos. Granted, they are all in a NOAA weather radio voice. Still, very informative. Over at the Court of Appeals, there aren’t any instructional videos. Sometimes you find out you messed up when you get an email telling you that you messed up.
  • Range of Stuff You Can File — Again, the Supreme Court gets the nod. You can file things in the Supreme Court that do not have a pre-existing case number. For instance, you can file an interlocutory application or a petition for certiorari. In the Court of Appeals, interlocutory applications still have to be filed in the way they were in the 50s
  • Integration into Your Practice — Docketing notices and the like are all still snail-mailed to you from the Court of Appeals. In the Supreme Court, once you sign up, you start living in the e-filing world. Docketing notices, orders, notices that opposing counsel has filed something, etc. will start coming to you by email. The Supreme Court has clearly gone all-in on the electronic thing
  • Filing Fees — Big nod to the Supreme Court. You can mail in your check, thereby bypassing the whole “convenience charge” deal that you get over in the Court of Appeals. Ironically, this part of the Surpeme Court is still old school. But it’s old school in a way that saves you money.

Not complaining about either one. It’s great that e-filing is an option. Just interesting to point out that the Supreme Court wins the e-filing smackdown.

coins in a graph.JPGYesterday, I E-filed two briefs in the Georgia Court of Appeals. At the log in screen I was greeted by a message from the clerk’s office indicating that they are going to tack on a $15.00 “convenience fee” for every case you e-file in the Georgia Court of Appeals, effective September 6.

The explanation offered is that the increase in the filing fee from $80 to $300 in 2009 has resulted in an increase in the “cost of processing the transaction charged by the credit card companies.” They go on to explain that the cost is still cheaper than paying a courier or shipping overnight. I love the honest acknowledgement that lawyers who practice before the Georgia Court of Appeals wait until the last minute.

I’m not mad at the Court (and it really wouldn’t matter if I were.). Submitting something the old fashioned way is a pain in the briefs. The old fashioned way entails buying those backings that you only see when you are sending off a brief or on Law and Order when Jack McCoy gets served with a motion to suppress by this week’s guest actor filling in as this the slimy clueless defense attorney.You don’t have to buy those things anymore, and Law and Order can have the rest of them as far as I am concerned.

Filing the old fashioned way also means spreading a bunch of copies out all over the place and having the staple jam as you try to staple the little packets together. Then you have to use the right ninja force to try to get the next staple to go through while covering up the old staple hole. So, $15 is worth the “convenience.”

When you e-file, you only have to print out the copy for the DA because those guys largely don’t e-file or even email for that matter. But still, e-filing makes things easier.

But I can’t help but notice that criminal appellate attorneys are bearing the burden for the civil bar’s fee increase. Our filings fees are still $80. Why are we paying an increased convenience fee? Also, aren’t we subsidizing the Court’s convenience also. After all, the Court does not have to administer the handling of so much paper as the files are maintained and moved around from judge to judge.

The sad part of all of this is that the judiciary could never explain to the legislature that it should finance e-filing because the amount of money spent in increased credit card fees is more than saved in administrative costs. Such conversation would be lost on the party in power in Georgia, most of whom would like Georgia to have only two branches of government anyway.

Still, it’s $15 worth paying to help yourself and the Court to go paperless, but not with a smile.

Christmas Picture.jpgWhile it feels like August in Georgia, for appellate practitioners it may feel a little like it is Christmas. Today, the Supreme Court of Georgia has begun accepting briefs through its new e-filing system.

From today forward, lawyers who are in good standing and members of the State Bar of Georgia and the the Supreme Court of Georgia may file a brief and other pleadings before the court by uploading them to the Supreme Court e-filing website as a PDF. While the Georgia Court of Appeals has allowed e-filing for several months now, the Supreme Court will allow a wider range of filings than the Court of Appeals currently supports.

Beyond the Supreme Court’s website, several news have filed stores on e-filing. Bill Rankin, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution used twitter to announce it. Jan Skutch with the Savannah Morning News ran a story about it. WLTZ News has covered it. My friends over at the SCOG Blog have a good post where they have registered and tried it out. Of Course, the Supreme Court’s own website has extensive coverage.

Among the types of filings that may be submitted the filing system our briefs on cases that are currently pending before the court, applications for interlocutory appeal, applications for discretionary appeal, and petitions for certiorari.

For those unfamiliar with E-filing, the Court has included several instructional videos to tell you how to do things such as register for the following with the Supreme Court, how to submit your first brief, and how to submit various petitions for matters that are not currently docketed before the court. If you have filed electronically in the Georgia Court of Appeals, you will find that the user interface here looks familiar.

I have already registered with the system and find that many of my filings are available to be reviewed. I wrote an article in the most recent issue of the appellate law section’s newsletter, the Appellate Review that discusses the filing in the Georgia Court of Appeals, and I am sure that the section will have a forthcoming article on the Supreme Court’s new move.

Chief Justice Hunstein is very excited about the development. She said today “What we’re talking about here is a revolutionary change that is a win-win situation for the Court and for the litigants,”. She added, “The parties will save time and money by no longer having to print, copy and deliver paper documents. No more fighting Atlanta traffic to get those documents into our Clerk’s office by the 4:30 filing deadline.”

Today’s announcement from the court will make several people happy, including lawyers, legal secretaries, court personnel, and many others who deal with the Supreme Court on a regular basis. No doubt, this system will make several people unhappy including Blumberg, copier suppliers, the United States Postal Service – particularly my old friends whom I used to see at the Hapeville post office at midnight (the last post office in the state you can file things up to midnight). The fact that those people will be unhappy actually makes the even happier.

In the long run, this new system will save me money as every time have ever had to file a brief with the Supreme Court of Georgia, it has been necessary to prepare an original and seven copies to mail out.