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.


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?


How Paper-On-Demand Provides Judges with Documents That Work “Better Than Paper” (Part Three)

Having previously considered the judicial requirements for Accessibility and Navigability, and Readability, let’s now take a look at the judicial needs and requirements for Document Manipulation.

Next to readability, manipulation of documents is probably one of the biggest issues for judges considering a move to a paper-on-demand court. Indeed, paper-on- demand, by definition, leaves open the alternative of printing out documents and files for judges who want the physical paper. In the past, some judges have done exactly that. Much of the reason dates back to the “bleeding edge” days in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the available technology simply could not provide the type of interface that could compete in terms of speed and usability with paper.

Some of the modern capabilities that enhance judicial document handling include:

Multi-Touch Display – The ability to bring up and move documents around on the screen using mouse, stylus or one or more fingers, depending on preference.

Dynamic Tabbing/Place-holders – Essentially “virtual fingers”. When looking through a physical case file and flipping back and forth between two or more documents or different pages within the same document, people tend to hold each place with a finger. With paper-on-demand the judge can either have each page on the screen (without having to disassemble the file) or place electronic “sticky tabs” to quickly return to them. (Note: Electronic “sticky tabs” do not fall off!)

Marginal Notes – Either “Public” or “Private” – The ability to affix marginal notes is generally a core requirement for judges. Not only must judges be able to annotate documents, they have to be able to keep some of their notes to themselves or limit access to just other judges. For that reason, they may want their own marked-up copy of a document. Electronic Content Management (ECM) provides this capability in a highly secure fashion. Again, the notes do not fall off; and they have less risk of being seen by unauthorized eyes.

Edit/Save/Distribute – One of the challenges of early document imaging was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to allow judges to quickly and easily edit documents, particularly documents they then needed to sign. Current ECM systems provide simple, easy and secure editing capability for judges.

Today there are fewer reasons to choose paper over electronic documents. Judges can now manipulate electronic documents faster, easier, and more effectively than they can paper. Already, many judges in courts that have implemented systems with these judicial requirements in mind are finding that paper documents simply cannot provide them with the level of ease and control of document manipulation that can be provided by a well-designed ECM system. Indeed, just as courts previously developed (often with great specificity) rules to control the size, shape and paper weight of court documents in order to maximize their “ergonomic” (ease of handling) characteristics, today courts are widely implementing court rules to require and control the characteristics of electronic documents. It makes sense for judges to insist that those characteristics be stated up front as requirements when designing the system, in order to assure them the usability they need.

The final installment of this series will consider how and why Electronic Signature capability is a key requirement in providing a judicial interface to electronic documents that is “Better Than Paper”.

Down on the Farm

Mr. & Mrs. Brown

“I LIKE horses”, said Farmer Brown.  “I’ve always used horses to do the plowing; my daddy always used horses to do the plowing; and his daddy before him always used horses to do the plowing.  I UNDERSTAND horses.  I know how to take care of horses.  The barn is set up for the horses.  I have a pasture for horses, with a fence that my farmhands fix regularly.   I have hay fields that we work to produce hay for the horses.  We know HOW to produce the hay. ”

“I just don’t WANT a tractor.  I don’t know how to drive a tractor.  My farmhands don’t know how to take care of tractors.  We’d have to get gas.”

“Beyond all that, tractors are EXPENSIVE!  And times are hard.  I’ve already had to let a number of the farmhands go; but the work keeps piling up.”

“Now, I’ll grant you that the tractor doesn’t get tired or sick.  Sure, it can pull a plow that is three times the weight a horse can pull and can do a whole lot of other things besides plowing.  Yes; it’s also a lot easier to put away and doesn’t take up near as much room.  And I’ll also grant that gas is a lot less expensive than all that hay; leave aside the cost of the pasture and the hay fields.”

“Of course, we COULD get a tractor AND keep the horses.  That way, we’d get the productivity advantages of the tractor, and we would still have the comfort of having our horses around.  The best of both worlds.”

“Also, unfortunately, the expense of both worlds,” pointed out Mrs. Brown, who keeps the farm books.  

For some reason, Farmer Brown neglected to thank her for her observation.  He continued on, exclaiming,  “I’m a good farmer.  I know the soil; I know what to plant, when to plant, how to irrigate and fertilize, when to harvest, how to market.  I produce good crops.  I’m a GOOD farmer!”

“No one says you’re not a good farmer, dear, ” said Mrs. Brown.  “In fact, everyone knows you’re an excellent farmer.  But to be the best farmer you can be, shouldn’t you run the best farm possible?”

“Well, sure.  But to tell you the truth, I’m more than a little afraid of tractors.  I’m afraid that, because I don’t understand them, they’ll start dictating how I’m supposed to farm.”

“Oh,” interrupted Mrs. Brown. “Will a tractor change our climate?  Will it change the soil?  Will it change what produce people will buy?”

“No; of course not,” Farmer Brown admitted.

Mrs. Brown sighed.  “Dear, the fact is that in some ways it WILL change how you farm.  For example, the back forty, that you have left fallow because you haven’t had time and horse teams enough to work it; you’ll probably start working it.  That will bring in more crops, which means you’ll need to expand the silo.   And I expect there will be other changes, too.  You’ll want to learn to drive the tractor.  The farmhands will need to learn to maintain it.  We’ll have to get gas. 

What it WON’T change is that the farm needs a good farmer.  And it won’t change the fact that you ARE a good farmer.”

“Well, could I NAME the tractor?”

  *   *   *   *   *   * 

 Key to decoding the above parable: 

  • Farmer = Judge
  • Horses = Paper-based records system
  • Plowing = Reading and Signing
  • Barn = Courthouse
  • Pasture = File Room
  • Fence = Paper record security
  • Hay = Court processes for using paper records
  • Soil, irrigation, fertilization = The justice system, the law, process and procedure, people
  • Crops – Decisions
  • Tractor = Electronic Content Management System
  • Gas = ECMS processes with configurable workflow
  • Back Forty – Programs like specialty (eg, Drug, Family) courts

Want Judges To Use ECM? – Don’t Skimp On Document Display Devices

In Disney’s Aladdin, Robin Williams, as the genie, gives this description of what it’s like to be a genie: “Enorrrrmous powers !!! ….Teeny, tiny living space.”   That, to me, is an almost perfect description of an iPhone. 

When I discuss what judges should want from a Paper-On-Demand Enterprise Content Management system, one requirement at the top of the list is lots of real estate.  You may be able to get Moby Dick on your iPhone; but who wants to read it that way?

I have heard from numerous judges that one major objection to using electronic documents is that they simply cannot adequately display and navigate within even one, much less multiple, documents on a standard computer screen. Granted, ten years ago that may well have been a problem difficult to surmount.  But today, this is about the about the same as if someone objected to driving motor vehicles because you can’t pull a beer wagon with a Volkswagen as well as with a team of Clydesdales. 

 I finally realized that many judges are unaware that there are now considerably more elegant, sophisticated, powerful and flexible display options.  Indeed, today’s display technology can – and should – provide document retrieval, navigation, reading and manipulation capabilities that are better than paper

So, Step One: Stop trying to imagine how a judge would use electronic court documents with a standard computer screen.  Instead, start thinking about what a judge needs.  Keep in mind that judges need to use documents in different places, for different purposes and at different times.  Below is a chart which sets forth on the one hand the kinds of document-based activities a judge has to perform, and on the other, where he/she may be when performing each activity.

As you step through each activity, consider how it is conducted using the paper-based, physical documents and files.  If a judge is on the bench and needs a file, how does that happen?  When a judge wants to look at multiple documents in chambers, does he/she typically spread them out or mark them for easy access; place them side by side; and so on?   Work through all the relevant activity/location/need cells of the chart.

Next, become educated on what types of display options are currently offered.  Large screens or dual screens are now available that can easily display multiple documents; yet have “footprints” (that is, take up space) as small or smaller than traditional monitors.  Furthermore, with touchscreen technology, judges can easily manipulate, annotate, tab and “cut and paste” documents using touch screens, pointers, mice or a combination.   Laptops or tablet technology can provide “on the go” access, which of course trades off “real estate” (screen area) for size.  

Be certain, in all cases, to clearly distinguish what works well for each need in each different environment.   A tablet is great for travel; but for regular research you want a large screen.  On the other hand, when travelling,, you can’t lug an over-size monitor.  However, you are also unlikely to tote a heavy briefcase of physical files.

While cost clearly must be considered, it should be the last consideration, not the first.  A careful court analysis for ECM should first identify the needs, the alternatives for meeting those needs, and business case (including both costs and benefits).  An ECM system that judges will not use, or will use only sparingly, will not return the same level of benefits as one that judges prefer to use instead of paper.  It is against that higher level of benefit, including financial, that the costs of adequate displays should be considered.

Experience shows that in well-designed court ECM implementations, the hard financial benefits (not to mention the many other benefits) far exceed the marginal costs of providing appropriate document display platforms to judges.

Helpful Hints to Get Judges to Use (and Like) ECM in Courts

I recently read Ken Follett’s historical novel A Dangerous Fortune, about English bankers in the late 1900’s.  Follett’s novels are always well researched and full of really cool contemporary technology. 

A few days ago, while discussing judicial use of digital documents with a judge, I observed that many judges are deeply concerned that they cannot easily navigate and use digital documents and files.  Interestingly, their areas of concern — finding the correct document(s), grouping needed documents together, finding information within documents, opening and reading multiple documents simultaneously and switching between them, making notes, etc., — can  be handled better using digital documents within an effective ECM system than by using hard copy files and documents.  The judge laughed, and commented that she drives a car with so many technological features that she doesn’t even know what half of them are, much less how to use them.  Her analogy hit the nail on the head:  A lot of judges simply do not know what today’s ECM systems can let them do.

As we continued talking, I recalled something from the Follett novel.  The difference between the technology being available and people being able to use it has always and probably will always exist.  In A Dangerous Fortune, a young banker, in the aftermath of an embarrassing error by his boss involving a mislaid letter, conceives of and implements a radical new solution:  He takes two boxes, marks one “IN” and the other “OUT”, and places them side by side on his boss’s desk.  The point being, up until then, the technology to order things existed; but no one had figured it out.

The technology of paper documents — arranging them in files; left-side/right-side documents, file tabs, case numbers, color coding, sticky notes, tickler systems — these uses of the “paper” technology were not developed over night; they evolved over a long period.  Eventually, what we use becomes not only familiar, but necessary.  You can bet that at the bank, within a year, no one could operate without IN/OUT boxes.

In the early days of electronic documents, navigation and manipulation presented formidable challenges.  But electronic documents have been around for over fifty years –TWO GENERATIONS.  In the beginning, things as “obvious” as IN/OUT boxes were unknown.  But today, those decades of experience, together with more powerful technology, as well as dedicated design involving judges as core participants, have enabled implementation of electronic document interfaces for judges that are better than paper.  What remains is to show it to them.

Judges and Doctors share a somewhat unique and sometimes counter-productive trait. They are expected by society to know everything, and therefore they find it difficult to be put in situations where they are not the experts.  This keeps them from using technology, and it sometimes keeps them from getting trained.  Zen Buddhism has a term called Shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind”.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few”.

Courts moving to ECM are well advised to find out, from the most techno-adverse judges, what capabilities and features are most important to what they do with files and documents.  And here’s a hint (as if you didn’t already know it):  They don’t really know how to tell you.  Do yourself a favor and utilize qualified Business Analysts who are experienced in helping judges articulate what they don’t know they know.

Another hint:  Arrange for the judges to SEE how a well-designed and implemented ECM system will be easier and more powerful for them to use, because as much as you talk about it, they will not believe it until they see it. Then provide top-notch training, because they won’t REALLY believe it until they DO it.