Episode 019: Connecting the Court at NACM’s Annual Conference


The National Association for Court Management’s (NACM) annual conference is one of the most-anticipated events each year for the justice community…and this year, we have an all-star team on stage discussing court technology! Listen in on this lively conversation between Brad Smith, ImageSoft’s senior justice consultant; Ben Martin of Mentis Technology Solutions; and Dan Willis, Trial Court Administrator for McHenry County in Illinois, as they debate how to best integrate technology in the court system.

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Kate Storey: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast, where we give you the tips, tricks and know how to solve your biggest workflow challenges, and bring great productivity into your workplace every day.

Every summer, there’s one event that many in the justice community look forward to: the National Association for Court Management’s annual conference. It’s one of the biggest industry events of the year, where some of the biggest experts from across the country come together to discuss the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing today’s modern courts. This year, our own senior justice consultant, Brad Smith, will be leading a discussion on the many ways technology is empowering court administrators and judges in this digital age, which includes e-bench solutions, document management, and workflow solutions. So for today’s conversation, Brad is going to be giving us a sneak peek into this discussion topic with a few other experts in the field. Ben Martin of Mentis Technology Solutions, and Dan Wallis, trial court administrator for McHenry County in Illinois.

Let’s listen in as they cover some of the biggest questions and answers on how to best integrate technology in the court system.

Brad Smith: Well Kate, thank you very much. And as you mentioned, I actually had the opportunity to meet with two of my good friends, Ben and Dan Wallace as well. And so we had the opportunity to do a presentation, which actually they’re giving us an hour and I’m just assuming it’s because we’re going to be in Las Vegas in the middle of July and really no one wants to go outside at that particular time. But, in our session, we’re certainly going to touch on some things from an AI SmartBench perspective and I’m going to certainly let Ben talk to that. And then really the star of the show, with not letting his head get too big, will be Dan Wallis as well. And so I did want to ask a couple of the guys just to say, what are you guys hoping to get out of this presentation? What would be the takeaways? I think at the end of the day that the court administrators and possibly the judges and occasionally there’ll be a clerk or two that shows up to the NACM conference. But I wanted to start with you, Dan.
Dan Wallis: Well, I think that the biggest takeaway that needs to exist is that this isn’t impossible. There are ways to do this. There’s ways to take technology and integrate it into the current workflows without having to change those workflows. It simply augments it. So I’m hoping that if people come out, they want to talk and ask questions that we can certainly talk about what we do in McHenry County, what our successes are been, but also how we did it. Because that’s an important piece, building the relationships, having the guiding coalition approach to it. So I really hope that those that take the time to come out and really want to delve into technology for an hour, that will certainly give them that opportunity.
Brad: Awesome. Now, Ben, I know you’re beautiful, so why don’t we [crosstalk]
Ben Martin: Thanks for noticing. And I’d like to suggest that we’re seeing just the tip of a paradigm shift, where we’re going from technology for judges being an appendage to the case management system or being an appendage to the e-filing system so that you have a signing queue, to where the judge is and the court is now central and a case management system and the e-filing system are independent spokes connected into an aggregated view for the judge that also involves spokes out to the jail or out to mental health or to case management or the DA’s office. So there’s this shift in focus where the judge is now center point, as opposed to an afterthought and an appendage to the CMS.

It occurred to me, Dan, that you’ve achieved the file less court room and so the reason you don’t need files is you’ve really mastered getting ahold of the data from the case management system and getting your judges to use it. And now you’re moving to a paperless information flow, which involves others systems and other technologies. And so it’s now shifting for you as you move into the next phase. And I thought maybe you could talk a little bit about how you see that happening and if you agree, maybe you see it a little differently. But, thoughts?

Dan: Actually this’ll be fun. You’ll enjoy this, Ben. Actually yesterday I got a phone call from one of my judges, actually she sent me an email. “I can’t prepare for my court call tomorrow. I can’t get into SmartBench. I can’t see what I need to see.” And it was just a small error on her part. It wasn’t anything technical.
Brad: Oh, good.
Dan: But it made me feel good that hey, if a judge is complaining about not being able to get into SmartBench, that’s a good thing. Because that means they’re using it.
Brad: Right.
Ben: Right.
Dan: And you’re right on, we moved … and I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due for the 22nd circuit, the circuit clerk’s office 20 years ago, even more probably at this point, started imaging documents. Even before there was what I would call a true case management system. But they began doing that. So at this point we have over 20 million documents imaged just for the court. And we took that massive amount of information and through interfaces and integration between the circuit clerk system, OnBase, which is our document management system, and SmartBench, we have now achieved that every courtroom at the 22nd circuit is file less. We have some no files being pulled. We have no clerks running around trying to find these missing file folders.
Ben: Woo hoo.
Dan: That seem to travel more than I do. So that’s all gone. We’ve achieved that really over a relatively short period of time. We’ve been imaging these documents but making that transition to what we in Illinois called e-record where we’re relying on the electronic images of the documents rather than the paper files, that’s occurred since really 2014, when actually I think the two of us, or, I’m sorry, the three of us, all three were down in …
Ben: Florida?
Dan: Florida, yeah, we were down in Florida, in the panhandle. Looking at SmartBench, seeing what we could do. And then, by collaboration, and of course that’s all part of it. You’ve got to build the internal stakeholders. But then you also need to work with the external stakeholders, the vendors, the technology, and get to know them not just as vendors but as people. That’s why you don’t like Brad.
Ben: Exactly. I share that with you. I share that with you, by the way.
Dan: But it’s building that kind of relationship that really pays dividends. It’s not just an employee or it’s not just a vendor coming in telling us what we need to change to make it work to their system. You partner together, identify what needs to be done, and then you build it and configure it here locally. And even through some of our holdouts that weren’t quite as technology advanced. And actually I want to make this point too. One of our strategies in getting to this point was literally taking my least, my second least technical judge, techie judge. He truly thought a mouse had a tail and it was fuzzy.
Ben: Weel, he’s right.
Dan: He is right. Unfortunately, in the world of technology, it’s not quite accurate.
Ben: No.
Dan: But we actually brought him in at the very beginning of this process back in 2014.
Ben: Smart.
Dan: And lo and behold, he’s a super user. We identified him, he wanted to learn everything he could possibly learn, went through all the trainings, taking time to show other judges. And I remember when we had switched on SmartBench and it was in a test environment. The next thing I know he’s running his court call, something that had never been done before, through the test environment. And I’m like, oh no, no, no, no. You’ve got to wait, we’ve got to test it first. And he’s running this court call with it. So it can be done. It can be done.
Ben: That’s great.
Brad: Let me, I know it’s been about five years. Have you had a lot of changeover in your judges, Dan? So when a new judge comes on, because I know that there is some transition from time to time, where someone comes in and so they just don’t know any better since SmartBench is there. It’s just like having Lexis or Westlaw, they just expect it to be there. Have you had that situation or has it been a steady group of individual users?
Dan: It’s been, well, since 2014 we’ve probably had six judges retire. So there’s been some transition. And what you just said is 100% accurate. The expectation when they came on board was, this is how you do the business. There aren’t files, you don’t get to tab files up with different colors. If you’re going to do that, you do that within your electronic bench. Because that would just be a step backwards, and ironically, we’ve had zero pushback from any of that. And again, it’s probably because they don’t know any different, and when they come in it’s just the way business is done. We’ve been able to continue it.
Ben: Yeah, and that’s a great story, to be able to just add them and not be a big deal.
Dan: Right.
Ben: And the other thing that came from that though, Dan, is like you mentioned earlier, you have your own proprietary case management system. You have OnBase, you have SmartBench, and the fact that all of those things can, can work together. Ben, remind me, how many different case management systems has AI SmartBench been integrated with?

Yeah. We’re connected into 24 different case management systems and counting.

Brad: Right.
Ben: And that’s a big deal. Dan doesn’t particularly have this situation. But again, if you talk about the shifting paradigm and you look at the judiciary, there are judiciaries that are hamstrung to multiple case management systems that don’t talk to each other. And they have to go and learn how to navigate into one and navigate into the other if at all, if they have the patience to get there. And what SmartBench does is straddles multiple case management systems, whether it be by division, criminal and civil are on two different CMSs, like in Pennsylvania there’s a state criminal, but a local civil if you will, or if they are across multiple counties like they are in the Florida, where you have circuit courts that each county will be on a different case management system. But the judge, particularly the presiding judge, is responsible for all four counties. And many of the judges will have calendars off of different counties and have to aggregate that. And that’s where SmartBench again puts the judge as the center point and doesn’t make the judge an appendage to each independent CMS, but actually connects them into that.

So, there you have it.

Brad: Now, Dan, is there something on the horizon, I know that you’ve been, you’re going to be able to show some of the things that you’ve come up with in terms of just finding different ways to leverage the technology, is there something else that’s on the 2019, 2020 schedule that you’re planning?
Dan: Well, right now we’re in a planning stage or at least I am. My white whales are all these forms that we have, that you check the box and then you hand write stuff in or you grab out of a cubby, that I spend $20,000 a year on out of the court admin budget here.
Brad: Right.
Dan: To have these forms that quite honestly they’re hard to read. I was looking at one the other day and in Illinois, when somebody doesn’t do what they’re supposed to, the attorney files a motion to show cause, to bring it back in front of the court. I found one that was actually a motion to slow cause. And it’s just the handwriting, the more we get away from handwriting into the text, everybody types, and handwriting has gotten worse and worse. Are there ways that we can, within the system, create documents that attorneys could have access to fill out, get to a judge, the judge does what the judge needs to do. Then it goes to the clerk’s office and then from the clerks … or first it goes to the clerk in the courtroom, they do what they need to do. Then it gets dumped into the document management system. The case management system gets updated, everything happens automatically.

And by the way, because of e-filing, we have everybody’s email address. We do service through email, no copies, nobody actually touches a document. It all is done through the integration. Because I think now more than ever when it comes to case management systems and SmartBench and document management systems, everything has to be flexible and dynamic. They’ve got to be able to talk to each other. Whether you want to call it a component model or you’ve got to have these integration points in place, because it’s great that the clerk has information, if the judge can’t get it or if the attorneys can’t get to it and it’s not in a meaningful way, at best it’s clunky. At worst it doesn’t work.

Brad: Right.
Dan: So it needs to be seamless. Any process that’s put in place has to be as good or better than the paper process. And I really think that, looking forward into 2019, 2020, looking at some of the ways that we can work flow some of our documents, get those things ironed out and get that into the hands of the judges where you can see, look, this is how it can make your life easier. It’s going to be a little different because we’re not going to be … when I say files, there’s no files in the room. We’re not a paperless court because we have 20 different forms in every courtroom that somebody goes and grabs and starts scrawling on.
Brad: Right. Well I think you like, the image forms, which is an OnBase solution, which does exactly where you’re talking about. I think the other thing that’s cool about it is, when I’ve been able to show that at clerk conferences and even court administrator conferences for that matter, when the number of court forms, which you were talking about, where even if they’re putting it out there on the web and individuals are downloading the document or fillable Adobe, they’re still downloading and then handwriting. But if you’re able to get that information in electronically and then absorb it electronically, so eliminating keystrokes, eliminating errors, and I think it was the form that you tried to show me the other day and you’re like, “I have no idea what the heck this even says. I mean, it’s clearly supposed to be handwriting, but I’m not really even sure.”
Dan: Very true.
Brad: That must’ve been such an awesome statement that it was not just-
Ben: I think Dan, you’re a master at corralling technology and people, I think a lot of your success has been in the change management area, where you’ve really been able to get on board. As you were talking about your least techie people are now some of your biggest users of the technology, and knowing how to move people to embrace technology. A lot of times there’s, technology gets out ahead of what people are willing to do, and I think you do a great job of that. I think we talked earlier about the evolution, and even though easy starts with e, I don’t think it’s e-easy to always get people to go e, because of their resistance to change.
Brad: You’re right, Ben. But the thing is, I don’t believe the change is terribly difficult, if you can just prove that someone’s day is going to be better or easier. I think at the end of the day if you can prove to somebody, and it was the mantra with SmartBench as it was drilled into our head for years, that as Dan mentioned, it has to be as fast as paper. It certainly needs to be configurable by the individual user, because otherwise they get frustrated. Because one judge certainly doesn’t run their courtroom the exact same way as another judge even if they’re in the same civil or criminal division.

But then finally, and the biggest thing was just the ease of use. If it’s not easy to use, you don’t want someone sweating on a Monday, waking up to go to work when it used to be just second nature to get in and do their job and try to dispose of cases as quickly as possible. There certainly needs to be something to be said about making, “OK, well, if I eliminate 80% of my pain, that’s a big deal.”

Ben: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Dan: You’re both absolutely right. As much as it pains me to say that.
Brad: It is true, buddy.
Dan: Ah, okay. It’s really about expectations and managing those expectations. From the very beginning, when you start down this path of integrating technology and especially with judges. Because here’s another little story. I was on my way to, I was presenting on technology as a matter of fact, and on the way down I stopped at an IHOP. And as I’m walking into the, IHOP, I’m looking at the door, it says no checks accepted. And then right next to that, go online to our app and order ahead. And I’m sitting there thinking to myself, “My gosh, here’s a smart phone app, but they won’t accept checks.” Isn’t that ironic that 20 years ago that was unheard of.

But the expectations of society and the people who use the court’s services, that’s changed. I do all my banking online. If I can do all my banking online, which has protected information, why can’t courts have information online? Especially when it’s public information.

Brad: Sure.
Dan: So it’s just kind of ironic. But then you’ve got to also manage that expectation, like Brad said, of the judges. Why is this better? That question has to be answered first. And then from that you manage that expectation through the entire change process. And I don’t think I’ve ever been part of an enterprise implementation that went 100%, but you get to that 80, that’s a solid win.
Ben: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dan: And again, the more information, the more buy in that you can get on the front side, because Ben, a couple of times you’ve talked about a paradigm shift. There hasn’t, when you look at the history of courts, back into the 1700s to where we are now, has there been progress made? Certainly. But if you look at, basically from the 2000s forward in technology related to courts, that’s a radical change from where we were. I’m talking about e-filing and things like that. So some of the judges, they get a little uneasy. So again, being able to sit down and show them, developing that relationship, saying, “Hey look, this is how we get rid of 80% of your pain. What drives you nuts? What do you wish this would do for you?” And then start having those conversations and oh, by the way, telling the judge the outcome of those conversations so that they know. And then that is what builds success in a system implementation.
Brad: The first e-file project I started on was in 1998, and I thought it was going to be the next big thing. I thought, my goodness, this is exactly like we started-
Ben: Slam dunk. Yeah.
Brad: Yeah. This is exactly the way it was eight years before when we were doing electronic legal research with LexisNexis, and Westlaw was out there and people were switching from the books to electronic, there was an uneasiness to it, a change management associated with it. And then it took off and I was thinking, “Okay, well, this e-filing thing, it’s a slam dunk, let’s just get going.”

And because of procedural changes and uneasiness and decentralized states and just the, aside from the federal courts, which started e-filing in 2001, slowly but surely. But now it’s like the incredible norm. Illinois, we just started e-filing. We did the first e-file deal in 2003 in DuPage county, and it took forever. And here we are. You just had your statewide deal kickoff just last year. That’s just 20 years, 21 years, of work for a state to get moving.

Ben: Yeah. It’s a remarkable-
Dan: That’s why we’re the best, in McHenry County.
Ben: Yeah. You are definitely a model of what’s possible. And I think, hopefully, that’s the big takeaway is that Brad and I can talk technology all day long, and to my mind it solved all the problems, eight, 10 years ago. But until you get success stories, and can show that it is possible and you get people behind it and you have a whole operating unit that’s leveraging technology, it’s lost on people. So you are the poster child for how it can be, and I’m excited to see where you take it next.
Kate: Well that was a lot of fun to listen to. I know that was a lot of great detail that was shared today. Some great examples, and I hope it’s encouraged you to look into what technology options and solutions might solve your court’s daily challenges. And if you’ll be joining us at the NACM annual conference, I hope you’ll make time to see Brad, Ben, and Dan really dive into this topic during their session, July 23rd at 2:15 PM. Thank you everyone for joining us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Paperless Productivity, where we tackle some of the biggest paper-based pain points facing organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

Well that was a lot of fun to listen to. I know that was a lot of great detail that was shared today. Some great examples, and I hope it’s encouraged you to look into what technology options and solutions might solve your court’s daily challenges. And if you’ll be joining us at the NACM annual conference, I hope you’ll make time to see Brad, Ben, and Dan really dive into this topic during their session, July 23rd at 2:15 PM. Thank you everyone for joining us today. And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Paperless Productivity, where we tackle some of the biggest paper-based pain points facing organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

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