Easing into E-Filing
Andrew Seff, Esq.
 

In February, computer scientists at Stanford University shattered the existing Internet speed record by transferring 6.7 gigabytes of data from California to the Netherlands in less than a minute.  This record, combined with our litigious society and the e-filing system now online in Maryland's federal courts, means that before many of us no longer qualify as “young lawyers,” we may well be able to “sue someone so fast it'll make their head spin.”  Until that fine day arrives, however, attorneys practicing in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland will have to spend considerable time familiarizing themselves with the many intricacies of the CM/ECF (Case Management / Electronic Case Filing) system designed to streamline the operations of the Court. 

It should come as no shock that the prospect of learning a new way of filing our time-honored pleadings has caused its fair share of agita among lawyers, administrative staffers and IT Department heads alike.  At the same time, the legal community has also addressed e-filing with a sense of wonder.  If you've seen a group of your co-workers huddled around a computer station watching the filing of an Entry of Appearance as if they were in a late 1940s living room squinting at Uncle Miltie on an 8-inch black and white TV screen, then you know what I'm talking about.  Like television, it appears that electronic filing, in some form or another, will be a part of our lives for quite some time.  E-filing will get confusing and overwhelming at times; that's almost a given with any new technology, but attorneys using the system should remember that there are ample resources for help and support in their e-filing endeavors and that other jurisdictions have implemented the CM/ECF system.

THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT 

            The District of Maryland's enthusiastic push towards e-filing may be bolstered by the recent implementation of CM/ECF in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  The Honorable Anita Brody, U.S. District Judge and head of the Eastern District's Information Technology Committee, is a strong proponent of e-filing as a tool to provide convenient access to the docket and the clerk's office to members of the judiciary and the bar.  Judge Brody sees several major advantages of e-filing over traditional paper filing from the Court's point of view. 

First, the case management features of CM/EMF allow judges quick access to their case dockets.  “A judge can have a copy [of a filed motion] immediately,” says Judge Brody of the CM system.  She also enjoys the fact that e-filing has replaced frequent trips to the Clerk's office with equally frequent, but less time-consuming computer docket searches.  Additionally, CM/EMF allows district judges to access their case files from their homes, giving them unprecedented and convenient access to their own files. 

Judge Brody believes that electronic filing has “a wonderful potential to have all our documents in digital form.”  This allows for an ease of communication that many of us have become accustomed to in this age of global communications.  Her Honor has observed that “people who are reluctant about computers” have had more difficulties with the system, but “those comfortable [with computers] are not having trouble at all.” 

The move toward electronic filing, in Judge Brody's view, creates an advantage for small firms and solo practitioners.  Though many smaller practices have concerns that CM/ECF will leave them behind, Judge Brody believes that lawyers in outlying areas, away from federal courthouses have been spared the expense of frequent trips to the courthouse.  Thanks to e-filing, those attorneys can monitor their cases and file their documents from their own offices 

            Attorneys in Philadelphia have a more muted enthusiasm, one tempered with mild frustration.  An associate at a medium-sized firm in the city agrees that the convenience of e-filing is a major plus.  The ability to draft and file papers with the court in one sitting streamlines the filing process and saves many attorneys the trouble of rushing documents to the courthouse and waiting in lines to file papers once they get there.  Resistance to e-filing can be a “stumbling block,” however.  Firms can encounter difficulty when even a few people dissent or resist the move to e-filing.  Resistance may, in fact, be futile, as the associate believes that “this is the way things are going to go,” and that the federal courts will be better off with e-filing.

THE ESSENTIALS 

            In order to participate in electronic filing, an attorney must have the required computer hardware and software.  According to the District Court’s e-filing website (http://www.mdd.uscourts.gov/CMECF/cmecfSysReq.asp), there are five computer requirements.  Once registered with the system, an attorney will need a personal computer running a Windows or Macintosh operating system, word processing software, a suitable Internet browser (like Netscape or Internet Explorer), and software enabling the conversion of word processing documents into Acrobat pdf files, the type of file used for all e-filings.  The Court also notes “scanning equipment may be useful.”   

Most attorneys already have access to the first three requirements.  Software enabling conversion of word processing documents to Adobe pdf files is available in several software bundles (a link to Adobe's homepage is provided on the Court's e-filing website).  Regarding the fifth requirement, the Court's statement that “scanning equipment may be useful” seems to be a bit of an understatement.  For a simple pleading comprised only of word processing documents, a scanner would not be necessary.  In most cases, however, exhibits or other documentation do not exist in word-processed form.  Attorneys will need a scanner to convert those tangible documents into electronic form so that they can then be converted to the required pdf format.  While there are paper-filing alternatives, scanning equipment is readily available at not too dear a cost at various stores and on various websites. 

In addition to those listed requirements, there are several resources that litigators will find indispensable in using the CM/ECF system.  First and foremost among them is the “Electronic Filing Requirements and Procedures” guide published by the Court.  The guide contains step-by-step instructions for most types of filings.  If questions remain, lawyers may call the Court's help desk at (410) 962-2600 or (301) 344-0660.  Finally, for the lawyer that just can't get the hang of e-filing, the District Court offers two-hour training courses on the CM/ECF. 

THE PROGNOSIS

            The CM/ECF program was met in its first month by both praise and criticism.  Luckily, for proponents of e-filing, the problems with e-filing seem to lend themselves to solutions.  For instance, not all attorneys practicing in the District of Maryland have registered with CM/ECF.  If they are not on the system, other parties in the litigation in question must not only file their documents electronically, but also send paper copies to their non-registered counterparts.  This, apparently, has caused some difficulties in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as well, as Judge Brody would like to see the court enact a rule making registration with CM/ECF mandatory.  The District of Maryland would also benefit from mandatory registration, either by rule or through good, old-fashioned peer pressure. 

            Users of e-filing have also encountered some technological difficulties, especially when filing large documents with voluminous exhibits or attachments.  CM/ECF does allow for the attachments of exhibits, but for any filing longer than fifteen pages (attachments included), a whole host of new rules apply.  The document must be filed electronically and in paper form as a courtesy to the judge.  In some cases, an additional pleading noting the filing of voluminous exhibits must be entered on the docket, and as mentioned previously, attorneys not using CM/ECF must be served traditional paper copies of the pleadings themselves.  And just like that, the system becomes exponentially more complex. 

            Despite the complexity however, the system has been working.  It may take a little longer for a little while, but documents are getting filed and the courts are moving forward.  The technology will get better and trepidation and anxiety that have greeted e-filing will wear off.  As long as lawyers offer constructive criticism and the Court is receptive and responsive, e-filing will make life easier in the District of Maryland.  

            Just don't send judges unsolicited forwarded e-mails, no matter how much money Bill Gates is offering. 

Andrew Seff, Esq. is an associate at Venable, Baetjer and Howard, LLP.


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