Happy Halloween

116_men-in-blackOne of the great motifs of the “Men in Black” movies is the human disguises used by aliens. A perfectly normal looking human turns out to be a sort of robot or exo-skin for some alien inside who is driving the apparatus. The allure of being able to wear a young, buff, fully-coifed humanoid exterior could in fact appeal to me; but that’s another story. For an alien, life in a human-suit draws a lot less attention. It’s like Halloween every day.

How many judges, court managers, court staff, and court records users live most of their lives in a snappy, graphic, touch-screen electronic world, only to have to deal with an ancient (if venerable) Court Management System (CMS) that is monochromatic, text-only, keyboard-driven and is based on codes that only the long-time insiders can decipher? It’s not that the information management function provided by the old CMS isn’t vital. It is. It’s just not very attractive, very accessible, very easy to use, or very extensible by modern standards. Worst of all, it almost certainly doesn’t handle ALL the information management functions; things like document management, E-Commerce, workflow, and so on.

One solution, of course, would be to replace that old CMS with a spiffy new one that has all the new bells and whistles. Frankly, that’s not a bad idea. However, that’s sometimes not practical. Barriers like cost, process change, technical support staff, to name a few, litter the real world of court managers.

Imagine if the old CMS could look like, act like, and (to some extent) change like a much more full-featured, modern system. Sort of like the alien deep inside the “Human” costume.

Integrating a legacy CMS with a full-featured E-Filing solution can provide this type of leverage. Here’s some of how it could work:

The E-Filing System can extract necessary data from the legacy CMS and store a copy in a much faster, much more accessible repository that is updated at regular intervals. Because the updating involves only changes, regular updating itself is fast.

When dealing with users – for viewing, for data entry, for communications – the E-Filing System provides the interface. Of course, incoming and outgoing documents comprise a large part of the changes anyway; so in fact what is happening is that the E-Filing System is updating the legacy CMS, saving redundant data entry while providing a much more elegant interface.

Likewise, users seeking to view court information, whether it be documents, CMS data such as the Case Register or Judgment Docket, things like attorney names and addresses, and so on, all can do so through the interface provided by the E-Filing System.

Much more extended uses, including E-Commerce (where users pay for court information), and secure E-Notification can also run off the E-Filing engine, all the while using back-end information from the CMS and in turn updating the CMS with the relevant transactional data and metadata.

Another major new “face” made possible by an integrated E-Filing System can be a customizable “Judicial View”. The E-Filing System can be configured to provide judges with views and access to exactly the information they need, whether on the bench, in chambers, or on the go. The E-Filing System will collect the variety of information from the disparate back-end systems in which the information resides, such as the court CMS, the Jail Log, the Court Docket, the Document Management System, and so on, and present it the way each judge chooses to have it presented.

Perhaps best of all, when the time comes to actually replace the legacy CMS, the impact on the end users can be considerably lessened. After all, what they will see probably won’t change much – because they will be used to dealing with the E-Filing System’s front end.

So, as everyone dresses up for Halloween, consider whether your old creature might not be a whole lot easier to deal with if it were “wearing” a full-featured E-Filing suit.

Happy Halloween.

Justice Summit Reflection: From Case Management to Information Management

Experiencing June’s Justice Summit in Grand Rapids as usual felt like drinking from a fire hose.  Sadly, I have yet to master the trick of sitting in on three sessions at once, so will have to content myself with reviewing the materials and watching the videos of the sessions I missed when they are posted to the conference website.

IMG_1273I chose to follow the Case Management track, which Jim McMillan set up with his keynote on current developments in utilizing the plethora of data flowing from all forms of Electronic Content Management systems to enhance Case Management and Decision Support. From the fire hose I came away with, among other things, the following observation.

The justice system, often led by the courts, is approaching or at a “tipping point” in the management of information.  As I listened to how modern systems incorporate, integrate, and internally leverage the three traditional informational pillars – Case Metadata (Case Tracking Systems), Content (Document and Content Management Systems), and Process (workflow) – I realized that the improvements have gone beyond evolutionary to revolutionary.

Here’s what I mean.

The original electronic Case Management Systems (CMS) automated the systems previously kept in large files or books, typically called The Register of Actions, The Judgment Docket, and The Court Docket, or some similar terms.  Thus the DNA, or “lizard brain” of even the most sophisticated of early CMS were electronic “direct descendants” of the old, physical record. As such, they are of course “case-based”.

Likewise, Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) automated what had previously been physical case files. Again, they were direct descendants. So, for example, the electronic documents “of course” had “page numbers”, for instance.  And perhaps “Title Pages”. And, also of course, they tend to be very “document” and “file based”.

Workflow systems were a little different.  While their antecedent was written or institutional process information, generally they came into being either with or following implementation of EDMS and began with “smart” routing of documents through the process cycle. As such, they really were not different just in form (electronic versus paper based), but also in function, from their great, great grandparent, the Routing Slip. From the start they were able to take advantage of the electronic information contained in or accompanying the very documents they were tasked to route.

As time has gone by, Electronic Case Management, Electronic Content Management, and Electronic Workflow have become more tightly integrated and cross-leveraged. This trend has led to much of the almost incredible new capabilities of modern systems to impact

What I began to notice, from Jim’s Keynote through the various sessions on Case Management, is that the newest systems are starting to leave some of the old DNA behind. Instead, they start from ground zero and are designed to capture, store, utilize, disseminate, exchange, secure, manipulate, manage, and control information electronically from end to end, without resort to “lizard brain” limitations imposed by the physical limitations of previous ages. Concepts such as “case”, “file”, “person”, and so forth can be dynamically formed and utilized as needed, without imposing design or performance trade-offs necessary in bygone days. Furthermore, they are not so much “integrated” as they are reformed into a new, more complete, flexible, and robust whole.

What is emerging is a new type of system that is designed, from the ground up, to holistically handle all types of information – meta data, content, institutional knowledge and rules, security – without regard for system boundaries imposed by either information type or historical format limitations.

For those aficionados of Arthur C. Clark, what I think we are seeing is a Childhood’s End moment. The first wave of automated systems got us to where we are today. Now courts and the wider justice system are poised to move to a new level of Information Management, the successor to Case Management.

Integrating eFiling with the Case Management System

This is Part 4 of 10 in the eFiling Blog Series, check out Part 3 here.

Courts understand the critical importance of and need for integrating the eFiling system (EFS) with the court’s Case Management System (CMS).[1] OK; but what should that integration look like? Just like saying you need transportation to get from home to work, saying the court needs to integrate the systems does not end the discussion. Do you want to buy a car? Join a carpool? Take the bus?

integratingefilingThe good news is, there are choices. The other news, though, is that each choice has its own implications. Like the transportation choices, some offer great power and simpler maintenance; but at a price of limited flexibility and unanticipated dependencies.

First, how tightly integrated should the EFS be integrated with the CMS? At first blush, one might assume the tighter the better. If the EFS and CMS are actually the same system, one would think they could more easily act in concert.

Perhaps. However, consider where the CMS “lives”. Almost certainly the strongest security surrounds the CMS, and it will be placed behind a secure firewall. A firewall exists to control – read “limit” – access to that which lays behind it. In a tightly integrated EFS/CMS, “holes” must be drilled through the firewall to allow the filed documents in. Like holes over an ice-covered lake, while no one hole may jeopardize its integrity, the more you drill, the greater the risk of failure.

Furthermore, the CMS will, of necessity, require a certain amount of “down”, or off-line, time. During the down time, the system may be unable to accept filings.

Shielding the EFS from the CMS using an intermediate system can ameliorate these limitations. Essentially, the CMS will “push” a replica of the salient part of its data (the EFS only needs access to some, not all, CMS data) to a cache available 24/7 to the EFS. Communication between the EFS and the CMS can then operate in a much more flexible asynchronous (when ready) fashion, rather than facing either lock-step synchronicity with the attendant “dead” periods during which filing services would not be available. The tradeoffs include synchronicity (must the E-Filing system have access to up-to-the-second current CMS data?) and the overhead of “pushing” CMS data to the EFS.

Second, eFiled documents must be docketed in the CMS. One of the major advantages of eFiling to the court is leveraging the system to facilitate or completely perform the posting, depending on the type of document and the court’s comfort level with rule-driven posting (usually starting quite conservative, and becoming more automated as experience is gained).[2] This requires integration with the CMS.  Otherwise, docketing will still have to be done by the clerk, just as in the “paper” system.

Some CMS’s allow direct, or “hard link”, integration. However, where either the CMS does not have hard link capability, or if there are other reasons not to couple the systems quite so tightly, the EFS should be capable of providing the linkage from its end.

Each CMS has its own set of “codes” or object types, for documents. These can run the gamut from very general to very specific. For example, “Motion” could generically refer to any kind of motion; while “Motion to Allow Substitution of Counsel” would be quite specific.

This creates a couple of challenges for EFS/CMS integration. On the one hand, since courts typically have to “accept” just about anything that is filed (I keep hearing the example of a napkin, which seems a little farfetched; but you get the idea), the fact that the “code” used on a document may be incomplete or incorrect cannot stop the filing process. However, it can and should affect whether and how the docket entry in the CMS is made. A solid EFS with good workflow capability can be used to set the docketing “rheostat” from full clerk review every time, to “exceptions only”, to full auto docketing.

The “plumbing” of the EFS/CMS integration can come in different forms; and is generally dependent on the sophistication of the CMS. The preferred method of getting information from the EFS to the CMS is by using Web Services. Most modern CMS’s are built with Web Service capability. In those cases, EFS/CMS communication can be straightforward, based on the EFS standards. Because the Web Services are standards-based, they easily accommodate subsequent changes in either the EFS or CMS.

Older CMS’s, which may not be Web Service enabled, must be accessed either through a custom-built Application Program Interface (API), or through direct database access through database querying. API’s provide a lot more control and security, but have a cost to build and maintain. Major changes on either side of the EFS/CMS fence will probably require changes to the API’s.

Of course, in addition to receiving documents from outside filers, a court also generates its own documents, like notices, orders, letters, etc. Older CMS’s probably have data fields for physical mailing addresses. But not all have data fields for email addresses or websites.

Again, it often makes sense to offload the responsibility for sending out documents to the EFS, which can keep track not only of who should get what, but where the documents should be electronically delivered, not to mention what was sent, and when, and whether it was received.

To take advantage of the key benefits of eFiling requires integration of the EFS and the CMS. How that actually looks depends on business, financial, technical infrastructure (CMS, communications, ECF architecture, and so on), security, and performance considerations. Each court should carefully examine how it makes the most sense to integrate its systems.

[1] See Mrs. Wormer’s Coat, posted February 17, 2014

[2] Formally known as the Court Record MDE (Major Design Element) of the ECF filing standards. See the coming post concerning The Life of a Document After eFiling.

Coming up next: Blog 5 of 10: eFiling Blog Series – Life of a Document After eFiling


The Back End of eFiling

Make no mistake: I have been an avid proponent of eFiling for decades. In fact, my enthusiasm for eFiling and mandatory eFiling at that, predated eFiling’s actual readiness for prime time by more than a few years. It would be a total mistake to take anything I say here as a criticism of eFiling.

With given that disclaimer, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the strongest they can and will cut you. If you are surrounded by sharp knives, you have little choice but to learn and practice that care and respect.

eFiling has taken off in a big way. To the public, or anyone outside the court, it looks bright, shiny, modern and efficient. Some courts, however, may be feeling surrounded.

90_Back EndI’m reminded of the Post Office scene from Men In Black II. In the back room, all the spiffy office equipment is humming along neatly in an apparently total automated system. Then all the panels fall from all the equipment, and inside it’s being run manually by a legion of inter-galactic worker bees.

The discussion regarding eFiling has evolved considerably over the past several years. As recently as five years ago, or even a little less, a couple of the serious questions were 1) Should eFiling be mandatory as soon as possible after implementation; and 2) Should it precede, be concurrent with, or follow implementation of ECM with workflow in the court?

Today, question one has been pretty resoundingly answered by everyone who has walked the road: It has to be mandatory. Until it is, the court is in for pain, expense, and a lot of extra work.

Question two is trickier. Just about everyone knows that having Enterprise Content Management (ECM) with workflow precede or be concurrent with eFiling is optimum. Nevertheless, real world pressures are resulting in an uneven landscape. There’s a real benefit to mandating eFiling at a State or Judicial District level. Unfortunately, not all the courts may have a good way to connect the bright, shiny, eFiled electronic documents to their internal procedures and back-end systems.

Such courts have to deal with the non-optimum solution. Electronically received documents may be printed out; workflow will continue to be physical paper and file-centric, and manual data entry may be required to populate the back-end Case Management and other court systems. Many, many worker bees are working behind the scenes. Plus, they have to deal with their old systems, for which they barely had enough time anyway, and the NEW system makes additional demands on the court’s limited resources.

Courts caught in or facing this conundrum should seriously consider implementing an intermediate system to handle incoming eFiled documents. A web service interface coupled with ECM with workflow can accomplish a number of things.

  • Route for clerk review
  • Automate data entry to the CMS
  • Route for judge signature
  • Provide automated redaction of public-facing documents
  • Automatically publish to the court, city, county or other appropriate website for public view
  • Provide high-level visibility into the process and metrics on document data.

Five years ago, meaningful discussions considered whether eFiling was worthwhile. Today, that verdict is in: From a public and a legal system perspective, it’s a necessity. Furthermore, it has to be made universal and mandatory as soon as possible after implementation.

The second verdict, even if it hasn’t been announced, is already in the envelope. Once a court starts receiving eFiled documents, it’s going to have to connect them to its back-end systems and processes, and it will need to implement ECM with workflow. The longer it waits, the more pain, confusion and expense it will have to endure.



Background Buzz (More reflections from NACM)

73_background buzz

Despite the undisputed convenience and lower cost of online and virtual conferences, there will always be hard to replicate benefits from live conferences. Good conferences, in addition to the material presented, include networking and information exchanges that occur outside of and ancillary to the formal sessions. Moreover, I have found that most court conferences (and all the good ones) have a “buzz.”

I think the buzz from last fall’s Court Technology Conference and this winter’s NACM Mid-Year Conference have an interesting sub-theme of a major change in the wind.

Ever since the onset of the tsunami that now goes by name of “The Great Recession,” the background buzz at court technology conferences has been centered around catastrophically shrinking budgets and the dilemma of the need to invest in technology to meet the budget crisis, with no money to invest. My sense, from this year’s conferences, is that, while courts aren’t out of the budgetary woods yet (and probably will never be entirely), the focus of the conversation has changed. There’s still lots of discussion about cost benefits and how to best finance Information Technology infrastructure, but the attitude is, it’s happening and it’s going to continue to happen at an ever-increasing rate. So the buzz has now morphed to, “What does that mean? What’s going to happen? How do we ride this tiger and not become lunch?”

A not-so-secret fact of life for IT folks for the past few decades has been that one major (unacknowledged) strategy of a lot senior executives and judges regarding technology planning was to make certain that actual implementation would occur sometime AFTER their own retirement. In many ways, The Great Recession played right into that strategy.

No more. Most of the managers at CTC and NACM realize the change is going to occur on THEIR watch, and indeed is already under way.

In some ways, it feels like waking up from a long dream. True, some courts have pressed forward during the hard times. Still, many others have had to either postpone or greatly reduce their efforts, creating a huge, pent-up backlog of projects. Justice system pressures that were stressing court IT infrastructure five years ago are now past critical.

One result is that some questions from five years ago are simply not relevant today. For example, how tightly should document management be integrated with the Case Management System?

Courts are increasingly finding that CMS systems that provide “bolt-on” document management that allows documents to be stored with the case, as opposed to full-featured ECM, seriously limit the flexibility, leverage, systems integration and scalability required in today’s – and tomorrow’s – integrated justice system environment.

Likewise, is it better to start with ECM implementation first, then move to e-filing or vice-versa? Today, it’s pretty widely understood that courts need both; they need them universally and they need them yesterday. Attempts to implement ECM without e-filing run head-first into painful tradeoffs and limitations. Attempts to implement e-filing absent tight integration into a robust ECM with court-centric configurable workflow feel like building an airport on an island with no bridges to the mainland: passengers arrive; but they have nowhere to go.

So the talk seems to be turning to emerging Best Practices. Some of them include paper on demand, make e-filing mandatory, plan for and implement configurable workflow with your first (not last) implementation phase, and get in front of legislative and rule changes through ongoing and committed efforts across the justice system.

My guess is that the pace and penetration of ECM implementation in courts will continue to accelerate. The reason for the “What does it mean?” buzz is that people are realizing that, however implementation happens, it’s either occurred, occurring, or about to occur, and the planning for court life in the new IT paradigm, the vanguard of which is now ECM, is far from complete.

Exciting times.



Gazing Into the Crystal Ball, Part Three: Waving Goodbye to Documents


In a recent post I set forth some predictions of the longer-term consequences of moving to paper on demand, I posted that in the future, “Courts will handle only a small fraction of the number of documents they do today.” Here’s why.

The first stage of implementing a paper-on-demand justice system involves the very profound shift from processes that rely on physical documents and files to processes that utilize electronic documents. Not surprisingly, during the first phases, a significant portion of effort involves trying to make the electronic documents useful within the context of their predecessors, paper documents. (Yes, people tend to cling to the old ways. To quote Jefferson (out of context), “…all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”)

Of necessity, this transformation takes time. Eventually, as fingers loosen on the tightly held habits of the past, previously unseen factors begin to emerge. One of the earliest, and now well accepted, was that robust, configurable workflow capabilities are essential to making Enterprise Content Management (ECM) effective.

What ECM with configurable workflow increasingly demonstrates is that in many, if not most, cases “documents” are merely containers for information. Consider, for example, a typical Motion and Order for Continuance. Once upon a time the Motion document fulfilled the essential function of carrying the request to the Court, and the Order document provided a place for the judge (or other acting official) to memorialize approval. Today, neither document is necessary or desirable, as more effective, easy to use and safe mechanisms exist for accomplishing both objectives. Moreover, when a document (even an electronic document) is used, it has to be managed. And even if that management is done electronically, it creates overhead.

Think of making an online application for something that will require approval — say, a credit card or a loan; or, in my case. Medicare. The information (data) elements are critical to the process. There must be trustworthy authentication of the applicant’s identity. And, of course, the applicant must be bound by his or her assertions. But no one argues there has to be a document to accomplish any of these. Using some form of identifying security (today, email address and password are common, but more robust mechanisms exist), the applicant enters the information, acknowledges the terms under which the application is made and submits it.

Even with no document, the applicant should, at any time, be able to access the application information and see the status of the request.
In exactly the same manner, the “Order”, or approval/denial, has the requirements of containing the necessary information. If the decision/authority emanates from a particular person, that person must be held to have made the order. Again, absolutely no document is required.

While I could make similar arguments concerning more substantial, as opposed to ministerial/procedural, documents — things like pleadings, judgments and so forth — there is no need. Just the volume of ministerial/procedural documents in courts is so heavy that their elimination or substantial reduction will constitute a major change (for the better) in court operations. After they are gone, we’ll see about those that remain.

In this evolution, configurable workflow is THE key ingredient. The ability to move information based on rules, integrating the ECM system with Case Management system for courts, or Inmate Tracking System for jails, and so on, is the capability that can make many processes independent of documents altogether. Without it, some form of documents will still be necessary to provide conduits and containers for the information, albeit at a significantly greater cost.