In autumn 1988—a decade before the internet became a fixture in U.S. households—the Judicial Conference of the United States approved the first wide-scale plan to digitize federal case records. It was the precursor to the online court filing systems available in most federal and state courts.
PACER, or Public Access to Electronic Court Records, began as a system only accessible via terminals in select government buildings. But by the turn of the millennium, it had been upgraded with a new portal, “Case Management/Electronic Court Filing” (CM/ECF), that made it possible to file federal court cases from any computer with a PACER account and an Internet connection.
Even seasoned federal litigators—not known for being fast adopters of new technology—reported wide satisfaction with a system that freed law firms from the complexities of mailed notifications, afternoon court deadlines, and endless stacks of paper.
Soon, governing bodies in many state courts started exploring whether “eFiling” might also work for them. In the 2000s, voluntary pilot programs sprung up in isolated locations and case types in busy court systems like New York, Texas, Florida, California, and Illinois.
However, at the state level, the transition to electronic filing was littered with unique challenges. Local courts often had vast discrepancies in process, funding, and technology training, particularly between urban and rural areas. State supreme courts would need ambitious plans and plenty of time to enact them in order to bring about electronic filing in all jurisdictions.
While many high-volume states like Florida (2013), Texas (2014), and Illinois (2019) did make eFiling mandatory statewide by the end of the 2010s, the first statewide filing systems often focused on the most straightforward goals.
Today’s statewide court filing systems
Most statewide eFiling systems in 2021 are too young to have been significantly overhauled since their release. Typically, these first-generation systems do two basic things well:
- Electronic filing: The ability for filers to submit case documents and supporting information online to automatically categorize the document in the clerk’s case management system. Clerks can also return the stamped document to the filer or reject the filing to be corrected and resubmitted.
- Electronic service: The ability to send an electronic notice to all parties in a case when a new case action has occurred. eService systems can typically verify whether the recipient has viewed each update, making it more difficult for parties to claim they never received proper service.
These functions alone are hugely convenient, eliminating paper and postage waste and unnecessary trips to the courthouse. They have been beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic when physical access to courthouses has sometimes been restricted. But fundamentally, they don’t take advantage of some of the greatest strengths of digitized records.
At each stage, the same information typically must be retyped in the document, the filing process, and the serving process. In many jurisdictions, documents can be filed in a central location but not retrieved. Often, hearing dates can still only be requested blindly, without an indication that the time slot is even available.
By comparison, most modern travelers would probably find it frustrating if they could book a flight online, but not retrieve their reservation or pick exact travel dates. While it’s fair to say that connecting private and public systems are different undertakings, it’s clear that much progress is left to be made in making courts more accessible.
Court filing in the near future
As eFiling systems mature, some courts and service providers are working on adding functions that aren’t legally necessary to complete a proper court filing but do make litigation work much more convenient. Some of these include…
Scheduling appearances online
If a filer can’t see current available hearing dates after completing a filing, it’s often because the clerk’s case management software wasn’t designed to send calendar information to the state eFiling system. Lack of visibility is a common problem when the system used by the clerk was adopted before the state’s eFiling system was built.
Some busy trial courts like Cook County, Illinois, are attempting to switch to case management software that’s more compatible with the state eFiling system, making live hearing reservations possible through any certified eFiling provider. Other jurisdictions, like neighboring DuPage County, direct filers to a separate webpage for booking hearings online.
Retrieving case documents
After completing their systems for filing court documents online, some states turned their attention to building a searchable database where these newly digitized records could be retrieved or monitored without trips to the courthouse. Tyler Technologies’ re:SearchTX launched as a subscription service in 2017, allowing users to search Texas eFilings, track activity by case or contact, download specific documents, and more. Parallel systems already exist in states like Illinois, Georgia, and New Mexico, typically piloting with court staff and attorneys of record before becoming available to the general public.
Filing similar cases in bulk
Some firms—like those handling collections, insurance defense, or property tax cases—file plenty of nearly identical cases, save for the document and three or four pieces of client information. Instead of forcing the filer to complete the same information over and over again, bulk filing technology can offer creative ways to reduce a firm’s data entry burden when filing cases in high volume.
Automating more litigation tasks with integration
When you book a dinner reservation on OpenTable, it tells your Google Calendar to create an event reminder, which then syncs to your phone, tablet, and laptop. Similarly, integrated court filing technology can string together actions in different software programs to make time-consuming litigation tasks happen automatically.
Popular practice management software like Clio, LEAP, and Smokeball already boast features and integrations that can automate legal tasks like timekeeping, billing, and client communication. Add-ons like InfoTrack and LawToolbox connect them to court information, making it possible to automate parts of the litigation process.
By integrating two or more tools, firms can…
Copy case details directly from the docket
Some state court filing systems, such as NYSCEF (New York) and eCourts (New Jersey), include a docket search portal for looking up detailed information on active cases. While copying data from the portal to wherever you keep your records is slow and impractical, services like LEAP DocketSync can keep your matter information pristine and up-to-date for a per-case subscription fee.
Create court documents automatically
Modern law practice management systems like Smokeball, Clio, and LEAP integrate with your website to generate matter records automatically when a client fills out an onboarding form online, making it unnecessary to take down information in person or over the phone.
This software also allows you to save templates for commonly used documents. When you use these templates, any information saved to your matter will populate the document instantaneously. Using InfoTrack’s court filing integration, the automatically prepared document can be filed in just a few clicks.
Get calendar reminders for key deadlines
Subscription-based calendaring software like LawToolBox maintains a list of statutory deadlines for common filing types in court throughout the U.S. When you complete a filing action, they can automatically create reminders to complete tasks by a certain date.
Schedule Zoom meetings
During the pandemic, many courts began to post links to public Zoom rooms on their website to allow case participants to appear virtually before the court. Now, practice management systems like Smokeball can integrate with Zoom to launch videoconferences, enabling legal professionals to track them as billable time and save recordings to their client record.
For creative firms, the opportunities to streamline daily legal tasks are nearly limitless. Using automation to reduce the copying and re-entry of data can significantly reduce stress on litigation support staff and the risk of costly errors.
The real promise of future court filing technology is not to replace your work as a litigator. It’s to free you and your staff from low-value, high-risk data management tasks that limit how much billable work you can take on.