Decreasing the paper shuffle in Montgomery County

Although many of Texas’s 254 counties have technologically savvy infrastructures, others have not yet implemented modern, digital operations. Some of these communities are small or remote and less “plugged-in,” while others are more populated but satisfied with or accustomed to their current system. But the permanence of the digital age and the Texas Supreme Court’s e-filing mandate are encouraging many counties to start the switch. The next e-filing deadline—for courts in counties with a population of 100,000 to 199,999—is Jan. 1, 2015.

Montgomery County is one such local government in transition. Encompassing the city of Conroe, about 45 miles north of Houston, and a majority of the Woodlands, Montgomery County has a population of approximately 485,000. In 2012, the county started its still-ongoing move away from paper, “homegrown” computer systems, and outdated software. Like many Texas counties, Montgomery had already been scanning and digitally storing all incoming documents, but until recently it had no way to electronically “move” those files to one location accessible by all departments.

“For the courts, the clerks, and the attorneys, we were using 20-year-old software that was non-Windows based, non-work flow oriented—not really designed to take advantage of efficiencies and productivities that you can attain with current methods,” said Marshall Shirley, IT director for Montgomery County. “We knew we needed to do a refresh on these systems.”

It has been an incremental process, starting with new laptop computers for sheriff patrol cars and followed by new software for courts, clerks, and prosecutors in 2013 and 2014. This summer, the sheriff’s office headquarters and patrol deputies started working toward acquiring new software, which will enable deputies to file crime reports from their cars and communicate with each other as well as constables and municipal police. By 2015, the county aims to have new software for the jail system and to complete the digitizing, mapping, and migrating of district and county criminal data—even though the Supreme Court has not yet mandated e-filing for criminal cases. (Montgomery County met its July 2014 e-filing deadline for civil cases several months early.)

Most departments within the county, including the courts, are now using Tyler Technology’s Odyssey Case Manager, while the district and county attorneys will soon be using the Odyssey Attorney Manager for Prosecutors and Public Defenders. The law enforcement offices, on the other hand, will use Spillman’s Computer-Aided Dispatch, Mobile Records, and Jail Management products. Montgomery County’s IT department will then integrate the Tyler and Spillman systems to enable cross department flow of data, ideally in real time.

Funded through the county’s budget of about $1.57 million each year, the new systems—which include all software, data migration, training, and professional services—have cost just under $6.5 million. But county employees say these efforts are increasing efficiencies and saving time—and will also save money in the long run.

According to Patrice McDonald, judge of Montgomery County Court at Law No. 3, before the transition, she and others in the court system dealt with paper “all the time”—like the paper case files that she would box up at the end of the day for evening homework and those paper dockets that waited for her in the morning. “I’m a family judge, and we have a very paper intensive caseload,” said McDonald. “We would have clerks and coordinators toting files back and forth all day long in, essentially, grocery carts.”

With the recent transition, McDonald’s judicial life has vastly improved. “It’s completely changed the way we work—all for the better in my opinion. And I’m an old judge, and we tend to come a bit more slowly to technology changes. I would say that my learning curve was probably 30 days or so, and now I can’t even remember doing it a different way. I think, too, that because the information is so easily accessible, we do better work. We have better access to data so our decision-making is better informed.”

While Montgomery County has long had the desire to be more digital, McDonald said that the Supreme Court’s e-filing directive helped quicken the pace. “I think the e-file mandate streamlined the process. It did push us along.” Now the courthouse even has a kiosk that attorneys can use to e-file their documents before leaving the building.

County Clerk Mark Turnbull pointed out that while Montgomery County is embracing the available technology, it took quite a bit of time to get everybody in different departments on board—and that the county didn’t blaze the paperless trail first. When the county began its foray into different software and companies, many of its employees loaded on a bus and drove north to Collin County, which has an approximate population of 821,000 and has implemented numerous digital improvements to keep up with its steadily increasing population, including electronic and automated records, the conversion of 10 million paper case files into digital images, digitized felony case files, and more.

For those counties that are just getting started or that are considering moving toward a decreased dependency on paper, Shirley said the key is putting together a group of stakeholders and ensuring everybody has “a common vision” of what needs to be achieved.

“We all talk about integrated justice, and realistically we all want some level of integration,” said Shirley. “But as you look across all the different stakeholders—from law enforcement to the DA to the clerks to the courts—they all have their own business processes that need their requirements to be met. And when you look at the big picture, there are typically some trade offs that have to be decided upon. That common goal—consensus building—is what helps you get through that.”

For more information about e-filing, stay tuned for the Texas Bar Journal’s November issue.

Texas Forum to look at past, future of legal profession

Attorneys and paralegals from across the state will meet in Dallas on Feb. 28 to discuss the past and future of the legal profession at the 32nd Annual Texas Forum.

The forum—an annual conclave of attorneys, educators, administrators, paralegals, and other professionals—will take place from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Cityplace Conference Center, 2711 N. Haskell. The keynote presentation, “The Past and Future of the Legal Profession,” will feature a panel of professionals from the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Young Lawyers Association, the National Association of Legal Assistants, and the National Federation of Paralegal Associations.

 

Other highlights include:

  • Rowlett lawyer Chad Baruch will discuss one of the basic components of the legal field: research and writing in the digital age.
  • The attorney-paralegal team of Philip Vickers and Julie Sherman of Cantey Hanger in Fort Worth will discuss best practices and tips for e-filing.
  • Texas A&M University School of Law professor Neil Sobol will discuss best practices for effective electronic research.
  • Barbara Kirby, director of paralegal studies at Texas Wesleyan University, will discuss how the ethical relationship between the attorney and paralegal team has evolved over time, and the continuing pressure for paralegals to perform more substantive tasks with less supervision.
  • Lydia McBrayer, certified paralegal with Chappell & Alsup, PC, in Midland, will survey electronic technology in the modern legal office.
  • Jan McDaniel, certified paralegal with Chappell & Alsup, PC, in Midland, will provide a review of electronic timekeeping software, guidance on using electronic timekeeping, and tips on how to capture more billable minutes.

The forum will feature two tracks: an advanced track for attorneys/paralegals and an intermediate track for students and practicing paralegals. Registration ends Feb. 21 or once capacity is reached.

Registration ($30 for attorneys, $25 for paralegals, $20 for students) includes lunch. Attendees will earn five hours of continuing legal education credit, including one hour of ethics.

Download the registration form.

Attorneys must include email addresses on e-filed documents

With the continued implementation of the Texas Supreme Court’s e-filing mandate, attorneys are reminded to include their email addresses on all e-filed documents, including petitions, pleadings, and motions. Documents uploaded to third-party Electronic Filing Service Providers should already have the email address(es) noted. 

According to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 21 (f)(2), “The email address of an attorney or unrepresented party who electronically files a document must be included on the document.” Additionally, TRCP 57 states, “Every pleading of a party represented by an attorney shall be signed by at least one attorney of record in his individual name, with his State Bar of Texas identification number, address, telephone number, email address, and if available, fax number.”

When this information is omitted from e-filed documents, clerks can have a difficult time serving attorneys electronically and communicating other important messages. 

Houston attorney first user to e-file in 2014

By Megan LaVoie
Texas Office of Court Administration

Houston attorney Bob Gilbert likely wasn’t the only lawyer working as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, but he was the only one using efiletexas.gov. Gilbert was the first attorney to e-file on the new system as the mandate went into effect on Jan. 1.

He e-filed a suggestion of bankruptcy case for his client at 12:39 a.m. in a Dallas court from the comfort of his Houston home.

“I didn’t mean to run over midnight, I had several cases to file that night, how embarrassing that I was the first one,” he said with a laugh. “The kids had gone out, my wife was asleep, so I thought I would take advantage of the time I had to do some work.”

Gilbert, a solo practitioner who specializes in consumer law, said the ability to e-file has changed his business.

“As soon as it became available, I signed up,” he said. “It’s been a great benefit for me. I never felt comfortable sending filings through the mail, and I hate driving to the courthouse to file.”

Efiletexas.gov has seen a surge in filings in its first week under the mandate. On Jan. 1, there were 142 filings and 37,873 registered users in the system. On Jan. 7, the system received 10,570 filings and rose to 42,322 registered users. In all, there were 36,375 filings in the first week of statewide e-filing.

To put those numbers into perspective, without e-filing Texas clerks in the state’s 10 most-populous counties would have had to process 231,605 pieces of paper. That’s an estimated savings of roughly $2,000 dollars in paper costs alone and considerable storage and processing costs in just one week.

Gilbert said he practices across the state and greatly appreciates that there is now a uniform system for him to access. When he was asked what he thought about his permanent spot in e-filing history he humbly said, “As a lawyer, I’m glad I had work to do.”

For more information and to register to e-file visit www.efiletexas.gov.

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Texas Supreme Court approves final e-filing rules

The Supreme Court of Texas announced Friday that it has issued final rules for electronically filed civil court documents, effective Jan. 1.

A Texas Court of Criminal Appeals order also includes changes to appellate rules governing criminal cases. The rules supersede all other local civil rules governing electronic document filing in Texas courts, according to the court. Under the rules, court filings by attorneys in Texas civil cases will be mandatory.

The court also approved technology standards established by the Judicial Committee on Information Technology.

Read the e-filing rules here.

Read the technology standards here.

Electronic-filing effective today

Guest post by Osler McCarthy, Supreme Court of Texas staff attorney for public information 

Effective today, you may electronically file documents with the Texas Supreme Court, pay your fees, and serve opposing counsel using the Texas.gov electronic-filing system.

To use the electronic-filing system you must first choose an electronic-filing service provider and register. You must send two paper copies of your filing to the Court when you use the electronic-filing system.

If you choose to file using the traditional paper-filing method, you must still e-mail electronic copies of petitions, responses, replies, briefs on the merits, amicus briefs, post-submission briefs, motions for rehearing, and emergency motions to the Clerk of the Court on the same day that the paper copies are filed. The electronic copies must be e-mailed to scebriefs@txcourts.gov. An original and eleven paper copies are still required for most filings when using the paper filing method.

For more details, see the Electronic Copy and Electronic Filing Rules for the Supreme Court of Texas. For more information about creating electronic briefs, please read this Guide to Creating Better Electronic Briefs. You can also watch a video that shows step-by-step instructions for using Adobe Acrobat to create an electronic brief.