Episode 029: Probing the Kalamazoo County Probate Court


The Kalamazoo County Probate Court desires to help their constituents better when they’re going through difficult circumstances was hampered by all the paper that drove their processes. In this episode, the staff at the court tell us what life was like before and how different things are for everyone after moving to a digital process.

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Kevin Ledgister: Welcome to the Paperless Productivity podcast where we have experts give you the insights, knowhow, and resources to help you transform your workplace from paper to digital and making your work life better at the same time.

Thanks for joining us today. My name is Kevin Ledgister, your host, and this podcast is about the story of the Kalamazoo County Probate Court in Michigan going paperless. If you’ve never been to Kalamazoo County, I highly recommend that you take some time to go there. It’s a great little city and I’ve actually spent some time there, and I think it has the coolest name in the world.

For those of you who are listening on this podcast, even if you’re not from a court, you may find similar challenges in your own office. So you might find this podcast very helpful. So, go ahead and listen in.

With me today is Mary Haskamp, who is the deputy court administrator and John Taylor, who is the deputy probate registrar from the Kalamazoo County Probate Court. So welcome to you both.

Mary Haskamp: Thank you.
John Taylor: Thank you.
Kevin: Yeah, thanks for joining us. So Mary and John, tell us a little bit about your court and what you guys do there and anything that’s unique or interesting, or fun facts about your court.
Mary: Okay. So in Kalamazoo, we are the smallest of the three courts. There is the circuit court, the district court and the probate court, and we are the smallest. We have about 10 staff. Our court does estates, trusts, guardianships, conservatorships, mental health proceedings. We usually see people at their worst times.
Kevin: Mm-hmm. Wow. Actually, I didn’t even realize that you guys handled all those different kinds of cases, so that’s quite a bit for such a small staff.
Mary: It is. We have 10 staff and we all work very hard.
Kevin: I bet. I know that before you put in a solution of the technology that we’re going to talk about in a little bit, your court was like so many other probate courts that are out there that you guys were drowning in paper. You come up with some processes around back, but there’s a lot of things that are going back and forth, not only in between the staff members in your office, but as you mentioned, you’re also dealing with people who are at their worst possible time dealing with the grief of loss. A lot of times, they’re thrown into a process that they’re not prepared for. So you get to deal with that as well too. There’s a lot of things that are going on. Maybe for our listeners, maybe you can describe what was it like for in terms of how your office works and what challenges you had with your process and dealing with paper, literature clerks and judges or even with the public that you were working with.
Mary: Okay. Before we went paperless, we had a lot of paper, for lack of a better word. All of our filings came in via paper. We would have to create a court file. Some filings were quite large. If we had a trust or something like that before long we would have multiple files. We had the issue of if the file didn’t get put back in the right spot, we’d have to hunt for it. A lot of time wasted doing that.
Kevin: Wow. Wow. And how was it for the judges and when different things would come in and the judges have to sign and they’d had to review different things. What was experience like for them?
Mary: We have just one judge that works in probate court and is assigned to us and we moved into a new building about four years ago and he is on a different floor now, which made the process even more difficult. So we created a little signing area for him to stop down and sign files or if we had to get files up to him for a hearing, we had a rack of files where his judicial aid would have to come down and pick up the files, take them up for hearing, bring them down after a hearing so that we can get the orders out to the people. So a lot of time wasted.
Kevin: Wow, wow, and how about with the public and the people that you’re dealing with? They were obviously calling into the courts and I’m assuming that they a lot of times would be calling you and asking you about different things and where files where or what the status was, that type of thing. So just from a customer’s perspective, that must have been a little bit of a challenge too, right?
Mary: I think a lot of the public was used to it because that’s how we had done business for so long, but it would become a challenge if we didn’t have the file readily available. If for example, it was misplaced on a file system or if it was up in the judge’s chambers for something or it was on somebody’s desk because they were working on it, they may have to stand at the counter for 10 – 15 minutes while we tracked down a file.
John: Or come back the next couple of days.
Kevin: That always, it’s funny that you say that because I was just at a doctor’s office two days ago where somebody came in and they drove two and a half hours for a procedure, and it turns out that the doctor wasn’t there. There were some things that just couldn’t happen that day. There was some miscommunication and so they had to come back again.

And so anytime somebody shows up at your office asking for help or looking for information and they have to come back, but that’s never a good feeling, right? I’m sure that it’s always tough on customers that way, especially when it to take time off of work to do that. So you guys are challenged with paper and challenge with the fact that you had to single copy files. It might be in a judge’s office, might be in a clerk’s desk. You’re spending time hunting down these files and they’re probably taking up a lot of space in your office too. How did you guys go about the process in terms of figuring out what technology you use or what led you to your decision terms of choosing the solution that you did?

Mary: So that’s almost kind of an interesting story. We knew that we wanted to stay on the state court management system JIS. It’s a solution that works really well for probate court. Our circuit court had chosen a different path to go on and their solution really didn’t work for us. It wasn’t geared for probate. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that needs to be done, keeping track of our case load and all of that. The state system JIS just works so well for what we do. So we needed something that would work with JIS and we actually started this process many years ago. Our prosecutor’s office and district court were looking at on base image soft and I just tagged along, I’m like, “I think we need to do this.”

We chose you. They were already investigating you and it seemed like a good fit. I saw the product a couple of times at vendor shows. I liked how it looked. It seemed pretty easy to use. At the time that we were initially looking at this, I had staff that had been here a long time, a little bit older, not so computer savvy since going before we actually went live with it. My staff has changed and I have a great staff that almost every one of them are pretty computer savvy now. So it’s worked out really well.

Kevin: Good. That’s good. And you mentioned earlier that the other courts chose the system, that wasn’t going to work for you in terms of what’d you guys do in terms of your probate office. So I’m assuming then that the ability for you to configure the system the way you needed to work in your office was really one of the important factors in your decision. Would that be a correct statement?
Mary: Yes, definitely.
Kevin: Awesome. Awesome. So you implemented this technology and you configure it to your system and now I’m assuming that you’re, you’re storing all your paper files, you’re imaging your files now, so you’re not getting paper anymore or you’re getting paper, but you’re now making them electronic. Are you guys still keeping copies of your paper files too as an official record? Do you guys have to do that or are you just storing everything digitally now as much as possible?
John: We’re bringing everything in digitally currently and then we’re holding onto them for about six months just to make sure nothing was missed. If we entered something that it is imaged and then we go back and find that we didn’t do anything with it, we can go pull it and bring it in. So we’re just coming up to the point where we’re able to get rid of those already scanned in files.
Kevin: That’s always the first moment where you take a deep breath, right? Like, “Okay, now I’m going to shred these files and get rid of them.” That’s when you stick both feet in the ground and say, “We’re moving forward ahead with this.” So I understand how that can be. So tell me a little bit, now you’ve implemented a solution, you’re making this stuff electronic, keeping a paper copy just for archiving purposes. This has kind of a backup record until certain period of time has passed I understand that, but what is your office process look like today? How do you deal with paper coming in, your filings coming in, and creating this court case files in it, how are people accessing those? Scratch what’s what the office environment feels like now?
John: We’re still looking at the paper to make sure everything’s right because if it’s not, we don’t really want to take the time to image it and bring it in before having to then print it off and send it back to them and then delete everything out.

But then once it’s approved we’ll bring it in and send it on its way and see if the judge will sign it or set it for a hearing and just let it sit there without having to take up any space.

Kevin: Sure. Before when you had to sign with the judges, were you giving judges like a stack of files that you get to sign and go through on his desk? How did the judge manage signing before?
John: Yeah, before we had about a file cabinet that we would stick them on, and every two, three days he would come down and take a look at them and sign them. Some of the time you’d get them back and some of the time you’d have to wait another week depending on if he has to read them and make decisions from there.
Kevin: Mm-hmm , mm-hmm. How is your process now? How does the judge sign and review the documents now?
John: Now we just send them electronically to him and generally signing everything that same day, checking before he leaves and when he gets in the morning and everything’s pretty quick now.
Kevin: Yeah. And he’s signing these electronically, right? So he’s not printing these off, signing them and then you’re scanning them back in. It’s all being done electronically and then once he signs up, it’s being routed back electronically to do the clerks, I’m assuming right? Is that your process.?
John: Correct.
Kevin: Cool. Awesome. You mentioned to me a little bit earlier about how sometimes people would come and they’d have to wait 10, 15 minutes or sometimes come back on a different day, you know. Has that improved at all in terms of you know, how the customer service has been?
Mary: I think it has improved and it will continue to improve at this point because we’re still fairly new on it. We still have a lot of files in paper. It’s kind of a daunting task to do all of your back filing. Most of our new stuff is on, and when I say new stuff, I mean 2019 files, and we’re doing other files as we touch them. So if it is electronic, we have a kiosk for the public to come in and view the files. They seem pretty receptive to it and like it so as we get more files on, it will definitely be much easier.
Kevin: So let me just touch on that for a little bit. Just so our listeners are aware of what this is, when you’re talking about a kiosk, you’re talking about a computer that’s set up in your lobby or in your office where the public can come in and search for documents and view them. Can they print them out or do you charge them for printing or how does that work for you guys?
Mary: Yes, they can print them. They actually print to a printer that’s inside the office because we do charge for copies so they can’t just sit there and print off copies and walk away. It is a computer that’s in our lobby area that is visible to us so that we can assist them if they need help.
Kevin: Wow, that’s pretty cool. That probably also take some of the load off of customer inquiries too, if they can come in and search for themselves. Do you guys offer any online searches yet, or is that something you guys are thinking about in the future potentially? So people can just go online and search for these documents as opposed to having to come in.
Mary: We actually were one of the first courts that had our index through our case management system online. People have been able to search our records for a long time. They just couldn’t see the documents. They would have to come into the court if they wanted to view the file. I think at some point we will get to the point of putting stuff online, but we’re not there yet.

There was an issue where public and non-public documents, and things like that we’ll have to be conscientious of.

Kevin: Yeah. You want to make sure that sensitive documents are not automatically being delivered to the public, you know? Yeah. Then you’ve got to step through the process too, right? You bite off each step at a time and ]it takes time to figure out, okay, do we need to redact this piece that? This is sensitive information, but what do we do to protect and build all those standards around that? So that makes a lot of sense.

So within this product is what you call OnBase, for those of you who are wondering what this product is called. The solution that we deliver is called the paperless probate solution, but within it has a workflow component, which we kind of touched on it earlier where you look at a document, the document’s filed, you you’re looking at a document saying, “Hey, this document is approved.” You scan it in, it goes into a electronic workflow where if it needs to sign it goes to the judge and once the judge signs off on it, it comes back and maybe you needed to add it to a docket for a particular day. So there might be some additional processing with that.

Can you guys describe for us in terms of any other thoughts you might have in terms of how having this electronic workflow was really helped your processes or help how things work in your office?

Mary: I think it’s just made it easier. We’re not having to print out paper or even when we’re creating documents here, we’re not having to print it out. We just upload it right into the system. Saving time, we can sign stuff in OnBase and all of that. I think we’re still fairly new to it, so we’re all getting used to it in some ways, but we’ve all adapted pretty quick. It’s been a pretty easy solution to get used to.
Kevin: Mm-hmm. So is John your assistant admin, is he functioning in that capacity somewhat? Going in and making changes and updating the systems?
John: Yeah, I’m the system admin, so I’ve made a few little updates and working on other ones and then we’re contracting to you to work on the bigger stuff that we need changed.
Kevin: So tell me then in terms of… let’s go back, circle back for a moment and talk about the scenario that you mentioned first Mary, where somebody’s asking for a file and it’s in the judge’s office or it’s somebody’s desk or whatever, what’s the situation like right now? So we know we have an electronic system, but walk us through that for a minute. In terms of when somebody needs a file, what do they do? How do they approach to approach that?
Mary: Okay. For us, the first thing we’re going to do is look in our case management system. JIS, we have a place where we’ve noted whether it’s been imaged or if it’s still on paper. So if it’s image, then we would direct them to the kiosk, show them what they need to do to access the file and pretty easy. If it’s still in paper, obviously we have to go to our shelf, we have electric system and pull the file, pull out the confidential file, which is usually a separate folder, and then they can view the file at the counter.
John: Yeah, all of our files have a case number, so we’ll just pull it up and go into the custom queries, enter that case number, and everything associated with that case will pop right up.
Kevin: Wow. So it makes it easy to retrieve those files now. Internally, nobody’s going around searching for those files. Nobody’s saying, “where’s this file? Where’s this document?? At least if it’s there electronically, everybody can see it. I think one of the key things that’s important for your office is the fact that you can have multiple people simultaneously looking at those files, right? Now you mentioned that you guys are going through a backbiting process, right? Where you’re going through and you’re going back to older case files and scanning those in, and if I heard correctly, Mary, you guys are performing with what we might call a scan on demand, which is when somebody asks for a file or something comes up within a particular file that you would, if it’s an older file you would at that point image that file because it may need to be touched again in the future. Is that how you guys are doing it or are you guys going to go back and scan everything in?
Mary: We’re doing a couple of different things. If staff has time, they may just go pull three or four files off the shelf and get them imaged or more depending on what kind of time they have… Every time we touch a file we were trying to get it scanned in, but because of the volume of files we have, sometimes that’s not realistic, also because of the size of the files. We have some files that we have from the 1950s that are 20 files big, so just because you touch that doesn’t mean that you have time today to scan in that whole file.
John: We wish we did.
Mary: Yeah, it doesn’t really work that well. We’re doing the best we can. We figured that of our open files, we maybe have 10% of them done in our first six months, so I’m pretty happy about that. We touch our files every year. If they’re an open file, if it’s a guardianship or conservatorship, the person has to file something so we’re touching those files every single year. I suspect that we’ll get through our open files within the year or so, but it just depends because we still have new files coming in every single day.
Kevin: You’re doing all of this with the same number of staff right now. I know you said that’s you’ve gone through some staff changes, but your total head count hasn’t changed, right? Has it still been the same?
Mary: That’s correct. We still have 10 staff, but of those 10 staff, one is the judge, he isn’t going to scan anything in. And then his judicial aid, she would probably help us if she were slow, but she’s very busy too. We have one that’s a case worker. So realistically there’s five deputy registers and myself that are scanning things in.
Kevin: Sure, sure, and the thought process, with the file that you are scanning in, that’s giving you some increased efficiency so that’s what creates a time for you to go back and scan some of these files as time permits as you’re going through that, right?

Yeah. So eventually you’re, you’re probably going to find that you’re going to get to a spot where you have quite a number of files scanned in, you’re clearing up some of your shelf space. More and more your requests to come in or your guardianships and service ships or different filings that come in that resurrect old files. As time goes by the majority of those are going to be found inside the system where you can just scan those in and it’s there as opposed to having to go back and manually scan it.

You’re probably going to find that you’re going to have some extra march in your workforce or your staff. I know other courts, and maybe you can if you’ve thought about this great, if you haven’t you could just say so, but I know with other courts, when they start finding these efficiencies, they start discovering that, “Hey, now that we’ve got some time free up, we’ve got some other projects in the back burner that we haven’t touched in a while or they’ve fallen behind that we can direct some of our staff to work on some of those things. I don’t know if there’s any opportunities for you in that scenario, but have you thought about that at all? Or do you think that something that might happen on horizon leads at some back-burner project you’ve always wanted to work on or just been falling behind that this will give you some additional capacity to do that?

Mary: I always have back-burner projects. I think we will get to that point. It’s still a little far off for us, but I do see that we have a room full of closed files that will need to be addressed at a certain point. If we can just get our open files on, that will be huge for us.
Kevin: Wow. Wow. You have a room full of close files, so let’s suppose that you take care of these files in the next year or two or however long it takes to get to those files, but that’s going to free up some space in your office then if you were able to move some of those files out.
Mary: Yes, definitely.
Kevin: Is that a fair thing to say?
Mary: Yes, once we reached the retention where we have kept them for a certain amount of time to make sure everything’s in there in case we made a mistake, and then it will definitely free up space.
John: Us clerks keep petitioning for a pool table with extra space, but we’re not there yet.
Mary: I keep denying that request, I’m sorry.
Kevin: I had a ping pong table and maybe a little sidebar in there or something like that.
Mary: Sure, any of the above.
Kevin: It’s actually kind of funny, you’re actually bringing back some memories. My wife’s first full time job, actually her second full time job, but really her first professional job was in a law firm, and she worked with those electronic filing cabinets where you’re pushing different buttons and the code there, then whole thing would swivel around and we had whole floors dedicated to all these files and it was quite an operation. It was very, very impressive to watch break. I can’t imagine that could have been a cheap thing to operate and keep in play. Now we’re talking about putting everything on discs and in storage and in the cloud, you don’t even see this stuff anymore. It just disappears, so it’s pretty exciting what the transformation that your office can go through the next little while.

One last thing before we, before we close off here is one of things you’re talking about is what about from a disaster recovery perspective? If you’ve got paper, and I believe that there was another county, in Michigan, I think that they had an office where it got flooded and there was huge damage to the paper files and that type of thing. When your official record is in a paper documents in a file cabinet somewhere, there’s always a certain amount of risk with that. Have you guys thought about that? Was there any part of your thinking when you approached this and put this in terms of how this might help from a disaster perspective or recovering from a disaster, whether it’s a flood or fire or anything like that?

Mary: I think it’s important that we do have this electronically. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and we’ve had floods and fires in various courts in Michigan and throughout the United States over the years. To have things safe where you can retrieve them if you do have a disaster is just the smart way to handle everything.
Kevin: Can you share with me any lessons learned that you’ve gone through this process where you think if we were going through this again I might do this a little bit differently, or we learned some really good things through this process that are going to help us in the future, what are some lessons that you guys learned?
Mary: I think for us a huge benefit was that we went to one of our neighboring counties before we started the process, and we saw how they operated and what they did. At the time, honestly, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense, parts of it, and then we went back while we were in the process, and it was so much clear and we understood it so much more. Just seeing how they did things, we didn’t necessarily do everything the same way, but it really gave us a good insight as to what maybe we wanted with it. The thing that I wish we could have had is being able to work with the system for a bit and then having a period where then maybe you could come back and before we finally accepted it. It felt like that time was a little short, because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know until you’re in it for a while.
Kevin: Any perspective from you John, in terms of lessons learned? I know you’re approaching this maybe from more of a admin perspective, or things that you’ve learned through this process?
John: Getting in it and playing with it early was probably the best help that I had, and then going to the class that was provided to get my hands into it and have an instructor show me everything and how to work with the system and manipulate it to get it to what we need so we can tweak it as we were building it.
Kevin: Yeah. So anything in the future, any future enhancements? I know you guys touched on a little bit. Any big things or dreams that you have in terms of what you guys would like to do?
Mary: I don’t think we have any right now. We’ve just have a couple little ones that were in the middle of right now, so… Other than that, I think it’s working pretty well. It’s just us figuring it out all of our little processes here.
Kevin: Sure, sure. You guys are not e-filing with your probate stuff. You’re electronically buying, for listeners I’ve got to make sure I explain that, so electronically filing where people can file documents electronically into the probate court yet, right? Is that correct?
Mary: We are not, Ottawa County is one of the pilot courts, they’re probate court. I think they’re going live soon, that was, just to back up a bit, another reason to go with OnBase is because they do have the contract for the my file, so when it does come our way, I think that will make that an even smoother transition than if we weren’t on it.
Kevin: Sure. So when people are filing or attorneys are filing their documents electronically and they’re going through the state system, they can be transferred into your system pretty seamlessly, and you guys have electronic records as files, so you don’t have to scan or go through that process or anything like that. It’s just going to come with all the information and data that you need for your records and your files. That’s my understanding, right? So this really helps to prepare you for e-filing for the future?
Mary: Yes, definitely.
Kevin: So we’re really glad and thankful for your success with this, and thankful that you guys were willing to share your story with us. And for those of you who are listening to this podcast, if you’re interested in learning more about this particular solution, you can go to the imagesoftinc.com/courts, that’s imagesoftinc.com/courts, and you can find some more in there about this probate solution. So, thank you again everyone for joining us today, and if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to the Paperless Productivity Podcast where we tackle some of the biggest paper-based playing points based in organizations today. We’ll see you next time.

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