Episode 006: Steps to Going Paperless in the Courts

Digitizing the contemporary court space can seem like a colossal task – but the reality is that courts around the country are going paperless every day. So what does it mean for a court to truly be paperless…and even then, how do you get there? Brad Smith, Senior Justice Consultant for ImageSoft, answers these questions and more, putting your paperless jitters to rest once and for all.

Continue reading “Episode 006: Steps to Going Paperless in the Courts”

Are You a Firewall to Your Own Success?

We probably found this funnier than we should have, but we’re a software company – what do you expect?

184_firewall.png

Whether you identify with the fax-fanatic or the defeated presenter, hopefully you also found some humor in this. As a paperless organization, it’s intuitive for us to type notes that are automatically backed in a cloud, transfer video files through an online portal, and give virtual presentations via Microsoft Teams. But, all too often, we’re reminded by our colleagues, clients, partners and friends that digital communication is still not the norm.

Burned by the Firewall

We can get a healthy laugh out of this cartoon because it’s satirical of our very existence, which involves the daily battle of digging people’s heels out of the ground when it comes to digitally transforming their painfully paper-heavy processes. To us, going digital makes complete sense: your data is more secure, communicating is easier, efficiency, accountability and visibility are all increased, a few trees and some sanity are saved… the list goes on.

We could talk to you about the benefits of going paperless until we’re blue in the face and, if you’ve had the pleasure of working with us, you know we will. But we’ve come to learn that no matter how many facts we present from every possible angle, we’re not getting passed anyone’s firewall until they turn down the heat. If someone is a stickler on paper and manual procedures, they will incinerate our points with the flames of their implacability before our words have a chance to hit even one ear. Trust us, it happens all the time.

“Why Are You Not Paperless?”

You probably cringe more at this question than the once-per-year holiday dinner where your extended family interrogates every aspect of your personal life. But before you start flame throwing responses like, “it’s much too expensive!” or “the process isn’t broke – why fix it?” we ask that you think about the real reasons behind your apprehension –  growing pains and organization-wide changes are uncomfortable, and it requires a lot of preparation.

No judgment – we completely get it.

Take your time to research, talk to your industry’s thought leaders on paperless organizations, watch demos, and definitely consider the financial investment. Maybe read this article from the National Center for State Courts. But keep in mind that most organizations, and especially public-serving government agencies, are realizing they can no longer gamble sensitive information, data, and years of organizational know-how on the risk of paper, which can be lost, misfiled, easily neglected, or destroyed in natural disasters, like the tragic, unexpected California wildfires.

So What is the First Step to Going Paperless?

Be open to it. Understand what it means to “go paperless” (hint: it’s more than just emailing and/or eFiling). Take an inventory of your current infrastructure and procedures, and identify what’s not working or could be improved. Visualize the potential of your organization and set the goals to get there.

Once you have that, give us a call. We’ll partner with you to understand where your organization is  compared to where you want it to be and work hand-in-hand with you to establish blueprints for your paperless organization – even if we have to fax the initial plans to you.

We Want to Hear From You!

As much as we like to talk, we’re also great listeners! Leave your answer in the comment section below. We read and respond – promise!

Which persona do you identify with in the cartoon above? What is or was your biggest hurdle to digital transformation?

Want to stay updated on the latest government tech trends? Find the news directly in your social feed by following the ImageSoft Government Solutions showcase page.

 

Cheers to Five Years: Arlington County Circuit Court Celebrates 5 Years of Paperless Processes

ArlingtonCountyOffice

It was 2013 and Fourth of July week when Arlington County Circuit Court’s criminal division was wearing bright blue shirts. Unlike the patriotic color, the shirt’s slogan that read “Project Paperless – Ask Us What This Means!” may not have immediately resonated with independence, but it was definitely a victory cry. Arlington County Circuit Court was preparing to liberate themselves from paper, and that kind of freedom was something they wanted everyone to celebrate.

Strategically planned on the week that many would be vacationing, the clerk’s office was open every day, but only for half a day. Doing so allowed the employees to lean into their learning curve without interrupting the public. But after pouring three-months of dedication into this new way of life, the staff began to lose morale. They had assumed that, by now, everything should have been flowing easily, but they were still moving along the learning curve.

Kudos for Coffee

Feeling that everyone could use a pick-me-up, the clerk’s office introduced Kudos for Coffee to its internal staff.

Each week, staff could email a sentence or two outlining a positive feature of their new paperless style. One winner was chosen, won a Starbucks gift card, and had their encouraging words posted in the office for all to see. “It reframed their mindset,” said Christina Dietrich, Business Systems Analyst at Arlington County Circuit Court. “Everyone was rallying together to focus on all the good that had come from this transition.”

This Calls For Sheet CakesArlingtonCountyCake

Before they knew it, Arlington County Circuit Court had been paperless for a full year. Then two, then three, then four. Each year, the office had recognized another year paperless by wearing “Project Paperless” shirts or throwing a pizza party. But when their fifth-year anniversary started approaching, the clerk’s office called for wide-spread celebration.

Unlike past anniversaries, the office invited their constituents and public to share in the festivities. Invitations were sent to eFiling attorneys through their local Bar association, and signs were posted on the kiosks and in the courthouse. “Happy Anniversary” banners were hung in public-facing areas, and each division was able to slogan, decorate and dawn their own cake. The criminal, civil, and land record divisions, as well as the public law library, all pulled together to design four festive sheet cakes for attendees. Each spoke encouraging phrases like “Project Paperless: Where Less Is Really More!” and “Forests are green, oceans are blue, we went paperless for the earth, me and you!” And yes, the exuded excitement was truly contagious. By the time The Project Paperless Party had arrived, sheriffs, attorneys, eFilers, and more began to shuffle in at 9:30 a.m. for a piece of cake from the paperless system that had given them all peace of mind for the past five years.

AlringtonCountyPoemCakeAnd because Kudos for Coffee was such a big hit, it was brought back for the entire week of the five-year anniversary. But instead of keeping it as an internal raffle for one winner, the public was welcomed to participate, and three winners were awarded. Submissions had also changed from simple statements of “I don’t have to carry buckets of files into court anymore” to well-thought-out poems, haikus, and other creative ways of illustrating their love for being paperless. One person even entered a hole-puncher and asked “do you recognize this? It used to be an integral part of assembling files, but it’s completely disappeared since going paperless!”

By the end of the week, Kudos for Coffee had awarded three different attorneys with a free remote subscription to TrueFiling for up to one year.ArlingtonCountyLessIsMore

“I don’t think we’ll throw big celebrations like this every year, but we will recognize our paperless anniversary each year,” said Christina. “It truly is worthwhile to step back and compare where we were to where we’ve come. It’s good to celebrate that accomplishment.”

A Truly Justified Celebration

Since going paperless in 2013, Arlington County Circuit Court has seen a roughly 20 percent increase in its filings. Best yet, the paperless system’s efficiency allows the court to manage its increased case volume without also increasing its headcount. In the last year alone, the court has seen a 19 percent increase in its number of electronically filed documents.

And while we all may not be able to party paperless like Arlington, we can certainly learn from their story: small changes make huge impacts, and that’s something to celebrate.

 

Easing the Bench’s Transition to Technology

By: Brad Smith, Sr. Justice Consultant, ImageSoft

118_e-courtsReady for an electronic solution? Designing technology that is easy to use and understand begins with these steps:

  • Involve stakeholders who are candidates to use the technology solution; seek their input in design and functionality
  • Understand their exact requirements
  • Engineer the technology with features that eliminate stress and streamline day-to-day routine tasks

The ideal paperless courtroom solution for judges should be designed by and for judges to streamline their daily tasks. It should incorporate all of the actions judges need while they are on the bench, in chambers or working outside of the office.

Judges have identified their requirements for an electronic courtroom solution. It must be:

  • Just as fast (or faster) as paper and manual processes
  • Configurable for each individual judge and each judge’s work style
  • Easy to use, intuitive, easy to understand in under 15 minutes

Just as we all have downloaded different apps on our cell phones, judges need to be able to tailor a paperless courtroom platform to their preferred user experience. It must fit the various ways judges think and work in the court, with intuitive sections, such as your calendar, your daily docket, your daily caseload.

To fit each judge’s personal preference and work style, the solution can be as elaborate or as simple as needed. A solution that allows judges to easily configure colors, apps, screen display, and tabs, etc., gives flexibility for individual customization. A useful feature is one that gives judges the option to add color-coded tabs by all motions, orders or notices filed for a particular case. Being able to change the sequence and look of the display, for example, by individualizing it by hearing type is an important function. A manual task that is especially useful for judges is automated note taking, book marking and commenting on files, all without the expense and error-prone process of marking up manual paper files.

With such a tool, you can imagine that the administrative load to print case documents and organize them specifically for each judge can be reduced dramatically.

As many courtrooms have adopted case management systems over time, any judge-centered electronic platform must integrate seamlessly with the existing CMS, regardless of vendor and brand, and especially if it is a homegrown solution.

Above all else, the electronic solution must make the judge’s work easier, less stressful, simpler and faster with greater efficiency and reduced costs.

aiSmartBench

Designed by and for judges, aiSmartBench does all of this and more. It provides access to all docket images, court rulings and events, and key case data while allowing views into the jail system, financial case data and driver’s license databases and more.

aiSmartBench offers an efficient and easy-to-use way for judges to access their docket and streamlines the case information to only what is needed on the bench. Judges can edit and eSign orders which saves time sending them back to an assistant to change, print and re-present to the judge to sign which can slow down proceedings.

Once signed, the electronic document can be sent back to the court’s document management system. This paperless pathway from the court system to the case system reduces docketing time and eliminates the staff cost of handling, storing, and securing paper orders.

Judges can search within case files and documents and across case files. Access to Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw is an easy functionality included in the solution.

aiSmartBench is the only judicial solution that integrates with any case or document management system.

Read more about the functionality of aiSmartBench.

If you’ve used the Internet or an ATM with a touchscreen, you will be completely at home using aiSmartBench.

What are your requirements for an electronic solution for the courtroom?

 

They Are Coming – You Better Build It (A slight variation of the theme from Field of Dreams)

futuristic-buildingPeter Kiefer, Civil Court Administrator for the Maricopa Superior Court, and Phil Knox, the General Jurisdiction Courts Administrator, are engaged in a Court Futures study for the National Association of Court Managers (NACM) and last summer they addressed the American Institute of Architects.  The architects know they will have to design the courthouses and related infrastructure that the justice system will use for the next hundred years or so.  And, Pete and Phil went to great effort to get a lot of input from knowledgeable people within the justice and related communities to make reasoned predictions of what forces will be acting on the courts and what that will portend for the administration of justice.  For that reason, the architects were extremely interested in what Pete and Phil are finding.

Without giving away too much about the NACM study findings[1], I will (with Pete’s permission) reveal that, unsurprisingly, one of the scenarios deemed extremely likely to occur by the year 2025 is that most courts will have gone “paperless.”   The fulfillment of that scenario alone will necessarily carry large architectural implications.

For starters, when I began researching the AIA, I found that Pete and Phil had been attending and addressing the AIA’s Academy of Architecture for Justice Fall Conference.  Their website states that

“The AIA Academy of Architecture for Justice (AAJ) promotes and fosters the exchange of information and knowledge between members, professional organizations, and the public for high-quality planning, design, and delivery of justice architecture.”

Thus, not only is the AIA looking at the courthouses of the future, there is an entire academy that focuses on the subject.

Consider first the term “justice architecture.”  One inescapable consequence of “paperless” courts is significantly increased emphasis on Integrated Justice.  Courthouses (or whatever they are called in the future) are already, and will be designed in the future, as a component of this integrated justice system.   The infrastructure will both support and leverage internal (within courts and other justice agencies) and external (cross-agency and public-facing) workflow and content flow.  Physical proximity will not be the key element for effective interaction; systems integration will be.

Second, much baggage from current designs will not make the trip into the future.  Imagine a funding body — legislature, county supervisors, city council — approving a design that calls for extensive square footage for document and file storage. “Mail room” will take on a completely different meaning as content is received, categorized and routed in ways designed to maximize security, efficiency and effectiveness using state of the art paper on demand processes with workflow.

Third, structures can be designed based on ergonomics, rather than to accommodate movement of paper and files to people or vice-versa.  Public spaces can be located where it is more convenient (and/or more secure) for the public to visit.  High-cost, high-risk transport of prisoners can be minimized or eliminated through effective leveraging of an infrastructure that supports remote audio/video conferencing and hearings, together with paper on demand that enables timely and appropriate document distribution, delivery and signature within a fully integrated environment.

These are just a few “armchair” ruminations on the implications of paper on demand for courthouse design.  Doubtless many, many other interesting, exciting, and important consequences will suggest themselves to those who actually know something about architecture (of whom I am not one).  For me, it is exciting to know that those who will be tasked with designing courthouses for the next century are even now engaging in this type of outreach to those attempting to understand and prepare for the future of the courts.


 

[1] To learn more about or to participate in the NACM Future of Courts study, contact Peter Keifer at pkiefer@superiorcourt.maricopa.gov

After the Dust Settles

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of courts that have been working with Enterprise Content Management (ECM) for several years.  It is always interesting and informative to see how any new system, and particularly one that involves major paradigm shifts, is working after the “shakedown” phase has passed and the bloom is off the rose, so to speak.

 (Side observation: While some courts embarking on major systems changes document the “before” state, I don’t know of any that  actually record interviews with staff, judges, managers, attorneys, and other court users  or who film operations using the existing systems before implementation.  As one who has seen both the “before” and the “after”, I believe it would be a compelling documentary. )

 In Ottawa County, Michigan the court has been using ECM with eSignature and Workflow for several years.  Many of the staff have never known anything but the new system.  District Court Civil Clerk Laura Catalino is one who was there “before the flood”, back in the pre-ECM days. 

 During my visit, Laura asked me what I would like to know from her.   I told her that I’d like her perspective on how the system has changed the nature of District Court delivery of service. 

 Her first response was to gesture toward her workspace, open her arms wide and exclaim, “Well, for starters, LOOK at my desk”.  I did.  In fact, I took a picture.

Laura Catalino Paperless Desk
Laura Catalino’s Paperless Desk

What DON’T you see here?

Laura began reeling off points so fast that I gave up trying to get them all, losing count after the first four or five.  I pleaded early stage senioritis and asked her if she would send me an email listing them.  She did; and in my considered opinion, there is no chance that I could improve on exactly how she puts it.  So below, I share with you what she wrote:

 Jeff,

 As promised, here is a short outline of the many ways in which ECM and  workflow have improved my job!!!

 1. No paper: My desk is empty of papers/files, etc.

 2. No more lost files: Papers are not lost.  Misfilings can be found electronically!!!

 3. Easy to work share:  Staff from three different geographic locations are able to help one another without having to physically travel from one location to another.     

Staff member at all three court locations have access to one another’s  workflow and can lend a hand  when someone is sick, on vacation, or if one location is a  falling behind and another is slow.  When there is a question, staff can look directly at what has been filed, even from another site, which cuts down on having to transfer callers with questions.

 4. Customer service:  Workflow has made it possible for us to find files and information for customers without having to leave our desks. We can help them directly by looking up the information in [the ECM system], whether they are present or on the phone, and the information is accurate and up-to-date.

 5. Staff morale: The willingness of staff to help other teams. (i.e. teams = civil, criminal, traffic) has greatly improved.

 6. Emailing We are now able to email other courts, attorneys, court officers, process servers, etc.  

 7.   My personal favorite – no need for a typewriter!!!!

 Thanks Laura!  There’s no better testament to the benefits of ECM and workflow, than from one who has experienced them firsthand.

Laura Catalino
Laura Catalino from Ottawa County.

It’s the Journey

On one level, review of the Seven Wastes[i] set forth by Taichii Ohno gives a vision of the Promised Land where all Waste has been eliminated and all activity is productive and generates value.  Anyone currently living in such a place, please contact me and include directions.  A not uncommon reaction (prevalent in, but certainly not limited to, courts) is “Well, that would be nice; but we’ll never get there.”

OK; let’s not argue that point for now (I reserve the right to dispute it later on).  The real-world message, supported by careful analysis of Ohno’s writings, is that managers should strive to eliminate the wastes.  And a huge, if not major, portion of the benefits result from the striving itself, irrespective of the waste-free purity of the final result.

The fact is that just getting started creates unexpectedly large opportunities for improvement.  For one thing, simply mapping out the court’s processes and documenting the “As Is” state is always tremendously enlightening.  It will uncover a lot of the “we’ve always done it that way” process steps that need to be rooted out and eliminated. Taking the results and comparing them to the symptoms of the Seven Wastes (see the previous postings) will provide immediate feedback on potential areas for savings and improvement.

Likewise, finding a court that has successfully implemented configurable workflow and taking a tour[ii] invariably results in immediate insights as to areas ripe for rapid improvement.  One key, as successful courts will always acknowledge as a “lesson learned”, is not to let pursuit of the “perfect” become a barrier to the possible.  It really IS the journey; not the destination.

It can be worthwhile, preliminary even to full-blown mapping analysis of the “As Is” state, to conduct an “Opportunities Analysis” based on the Seven Wastes.  This involves searching for and documenting some of the occurrences of the known symptoms of the wastes (for example, movement of files or stacks of orders waiting to be signed).  The cost of these wastes and the potential savings from their elimination can be easily quantified, giving a very preliminary, but believable and understandable picture of just what level of savings are potentially available. 

This type of analysis can be done quickly at low cost[iii], and can be quite useful in helping to recruit and educate an executive “champion”, which all major change initiatives require.  Potential champions – those responsible for the effective operation of the courts, such as Presiding Judges, Clerks of Court and Court Administrators – are painfully aware that the wolves are at the door in the form of shrinking budgets, increasing public demands, exploding complexity and increased accountability.  As executives, it is their job to undertake proactive steps and make these big decisions.  By highlighting how ECM and configurable workflow powerfully and directly empower courts to confront and reduce (if not eliminate) the Seven Wastes, potential “champions” can gain some confidence that the efforts are not only worthwhile, but are doable in a practical sense.

Striving to eliminate waste from court operations is an undertaking that should never end.  The greatest problem is not reaching the conclusion (there never will be one as the orchard of waste in courts approaches infinite in size).  It is in making a start and adopting the habit and mindset of waste elimination.  ECM with configurable workflow offers, among many other things, the opportunity to harvest a lot of low hanging fruit.


[i] TIMWOOD – Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over Processing, Over Production, and Defects.  See previous posts.

[ii] Let me know if you’d like to set up such a conversation and tour and I’ll put you in touch with one or more such court.

[iii] Again, contact me if interested