Paperless Office Progress Actually Observed

As a kid at the beach, I became aware, at some point, that although the rising tide can and will come in and soak previously dry ground, it’s usually pretty hard to tell exactly when the tide changes and starts receding. In fact, it seemed to me that the tide level just sort of stayed at the same place for quite a while, before there was any discernable retreat.

115_paperless-officeA recent article by Christopher Mims with the catchy title  Why the Paperless Office Is Finally On Its Way caught my eye. Turns out that, no; it hasn’t been just your imagination: The advent of nearly universal “Paperless Offices” (or, as we like to call it, “Paper On Demand”) has been, shall we say, a bit slower in coming than had been predicted forty years ago, when an article in Business Week predicted that “…paper would be on its way out by 1980, and nearly dead by 1990.” In fact, Mims cites reports that indicate the number of pages printed in offices was increasing until 2007.  Now, we have analysis that 2007 was the high water mark.

Now, what’s interesting to me is not that the Paperless Office didn’t arrive on schedule – we all know that. What’s interesting is that it now looks like the tide has actually turned.

According to Mims’ sources, since 2007, office use of paper has declined a steady rate of 1% to 2% a year.  The article goes on point out a number of reasons for the hitherto slow progress away from paper.  Still, it concludes by predicting that the trend away from paper is gaining momentum; although full transition will clearly take some time.

Here are a few of my observations on these findings.

First and foremost, keep in mind that the “1% to 2%” figure is an aggregate. It could mean that every office has reduced its printing that much. Or, it could mean that 1% or 2% of all offices have reduced their printing to zero; and all the rest still print just as much as they always have.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. I think what you’ve got is a relative handful of offices reducing their printing by far more; and most offices, even when they are utilizing electronic documents, still printing as much as or more than they always did.

One excellent illustration of how this situation occurs involves our old “friend”, the process of printing out a paper for a judge to physically sign. Attorneys filing physical documents (which they had to print), which the court then scans into an electronic document management system, again keeps the “print count” elevated. The answer here, of course, is implementation of E-Signature.

Another all too common example is printing out e-filed documents, then scanning them into an existing, non-integrated DMS. Courts have discovered that, among its many other benefits, implementation of a strategic enterprise content management system will eliminate this huge demand for printing to paper.

When we see progress, such as the announcement that, having launched an e-filing pilot initiative in 2011, the Macomb County, Michigan Courts in July, 2016 report processing more pleading filings via their e-filing system than through the U.S. Postal Service, we are seeing how the tide really is starting to turn.

The statistics and trends noted in Mims’ article indicate that the balance has shifted. Furthermore, for lots of reasons (and we have discussed them here – generational, technological, financial), paper usage is not only dropping, but the rate is accelerating. Those who over the past several years have committed to and invested in moving toward “Paper on Demand” are and will continue to realize greater and greater benefits. Those who have yet to embark on the journey will soon find the pressures to do so building to an irresistible level as the receding tide leaves them alone on the beach.

Living with “The Law”

Courts have an interesting relationship with the law. On one hand, they have little or no control over what laws are put in place, yet they must deal with those that are enacted, whether they like them or not.

So it is with Moore’s Law which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. What Moore’s Law means is that the raw power of information technology – the engine that drives it – is doubling every two years.

An ancient tale illustrates the implications of Moore’s Law. The tale is that a king, being grateful to a man for some service, offers him “anything he wants.” The man produces a chessboard and tells the king he wants one grain of rice on the first day on the first square; double that (two grains) on the second day on the second square, double that (four grains) on the third day, and so on, through the 64 squares on the board. 93_chessboard_rice

For the first couple weeks, the man got hardly enough rice for a few spoonfuls. Assuming approximately 7,500 grains to a cup, he finally got nearly a cup after about two weeks (13 doublings). In another week though, he was entitled to over 55 pounds THAT DAY. By Day 27, his entitlement was 1.75 TONS of rice.

And he wasn’t even half done.

Much has been written about the implications of Moore’s Law in all facets of life. When one considers that the fundamental activity and purpose of courts is to process information, a couple things become clear.

One: Extrapolating backwards, Year Zero of Moore’s Law is about 1960. That means that as of 2014, we’ve been through about 27 doublings. Information processing power has increased over 67 million times since Dwight Eisenhower left office – from a single grain of rice to almost two tons.

What matters is not the number. What matters is what that increase in information processing power has meant – from space travel to smartphones to the Internet to ankle bracelet prisoner monitoring to “Paperless” courts to shirts that know when they need to be washed and tell the washing machine at what temperature to wash them.

Two: The other thing that matters is that, if we were talking about grains of rice, after the 27th doubling we’d have several tons. A lot to pile on a chessboard; yet we can still comprehend it. But between the 27th and 32 doublings – that is, the next ten years – the rate starts to really matter. In terms of rice, that’s around 56 TONS.

So we come to the really important point: Despite everything that’s happened with regard to technology and change in the courts over the past 55 years, THE REAL IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGY HAS NOT YET STARTED TO HIT THE COURTS. Our descendants will, in all likelihood, look back on the late 20th and early 21st Centuries as the “early” stage of information technology development.

Technology, of course, doesn’t comprise the total universe of change. Laws, for example, change at a rate far less dramatic than transistors on a circuit. Nevertheless, technology is driving up the rate of change of just about everything, INCLUDING laws. We can easily expect to see as much change in the next five years as we have experienced in the past 20 years. To understand what that means, consider that 20 years ago, almost no one knew what the Internet was.

The slope of an asymptotic curve becomes increasingly slippery as it approaches vertical. Courts and their political jurisdictions to whom they are responsible should be making ongoing rule-making, process re-engineering, and change management a top priority, not an afterthought.

 

 

 

Gazing Into the Crystal Ball Part 2: Some Longer Range Implications of Universal Implementation of Paper-On-Demand Courts

54_crystal_ball-implications

Survey questions from a group looking past the next few years, beyond when Paper On Demand becomes ubiquitous in courts and the justice community have prompted me to embark on a fearless foray into mid-term prognostication (twelve years out, to 2025).  Here are a few of the survey questions, along with my answers:

Question: In what ways can you see courts managing information in 2025 that even the most advanced courts don’t do now?

 Answer:

  •  Courts will handle only a small fraction of the number of documents they do today.  For example, why have a document for a Motion to Continue?  Or an Order to Continue?  People obligate themselves for great amounts of money; undertake extremely serious commitments, make the most solemn pledges, all without creating documents.  The lack of a document does not make a commitment (traditionally thought of as “signing”) less enforceable.  In the rare instances when something akin to today’s document (however rendered – electronically, physically, or whatever) is required, it will be handled as an exception.

True, certain processes may always produce documents; but those will be exceptional processes.  Generally, information (primary and metadata) will be handled in ways that maximize their integrity, security, and usability.   Always remember: ECM stands for Electronic Content Management.   A document is just one type of container or vehicle for content – one which I predict will decline in importance and use as electronic information management becomes more seamless.

  • Virtually all performance and memorialization of binding acts (today known as “signature”) will involve a hard biometric connection.  Many technologies are coming on line to make this capability seamless; it remains to be seen which ones will become standard.
  • A consequence of ubiquitous adoption of the technology will be standardization, which, together with “shrinking world” pressures,  will be enormously accelerate trans-jurisdictional intercourse.  These trends will result in a level of trans-jurisdictional business standards (court rules and procedural law) approaching if not exceeding that of the federal courts.   

Question: Can you see any societal implications of courts using “paperless” technology as much as we think they will in 2025?

 Answer:

  •  Courts will no longer be able to remain as remote as they have historically been, because they will be connected to the rest of government and society at a much deeper and broader level.  This fact will create a major identity crisis for the judicial branch.
  • Many court actions will approach “real time” effectiveness, with both positive and negative consequences.  An obvious example is an arrest warrant for failure to appear being executed on a defendant who is passing through court security on his way to his hearing, but who is held up because of the long line at the door.

Question: Can you see necessary changes to the court’s physical plant to accommodate “paperless courts”?

Answer:

  • The obvious include less storage and elimination of need to take physical document transport into account in facility design and placement.
  • Coupled with and partially enabled by the migration to Paper On Demand,  revolutionization of jurisdictional and functional boundaries, vast preference for virtual/remote communications resulting in need for far fewer physical courts, even greater reduction in physical trips to courts, and outsourcing and/or centralization of a very large portion of court work (because electronic documents need not be processed locally), will result in  greatly reduced need for physical courts in many locations and reduced size and radically different configuration for the rest.
  • Alternative input mechanisms such as voice, motion, and – most dramatically in 12 years – brain/machine interface (BMI), together with wearable (Google Glass and much more effective successors) or direct retinal receptors will greatly alter the need for and configuration of desktop workstations.  Few people will still be working with either keyboards or monitors.

I included only a couple of examples for each question; but that hopefully will be enough to provoke some reactions.  Others will have their own answers; some, no doubt, exactly opposite my own.  That’s one of the things that makes this type of exercise fun.  The other thing, of course, is that no one can prove that you’re wrong (at least, not yet).

Sign of the Times

The other day I experienced one of those “OK, the world has changed and here’s your notice of that fact” moments.  I remember years ago receiving a notice from my bank that a new service would allow me to conduct some of my banking activities online.  The bank was proud to offer this “extra benefit”.   No doubt about it, that was a moment of big change – just having the service available.  I think some banks actually charged a bit initially; and for those “early adopters” willing to take advantage, it was a good deal.

 It wasn’t very long before the bank figured out that the more people took advantage of this “extra service”, the cheaper it was for them to provide customers with standard banking services.

 The notice the other day declared that in order to continue to do ANY banking electronically (including things like direct deposit and bill-pay), customers must agree to allow the bank to do ALL transactions electronically.  For those who do not wish to agree, or who still want some services “on paper”, the bank will, upon request, provide them.  However, the bank specifically reserves the right to charge extra fees for such “paper-based” services.  

 The notice certainly wasn’t a complete surprise.  For years now, the bank has been ever more aggressively “encouraging” customers to go paperless.   The reason we have not done so is that my wife (a Legal Assistant in a law office that has waged a battle of both benign avoidance and hand to hand combat against the introduction of technology) has consistently said she prefers paper statements.  In some of the other accounts, I print out the statements for her; but on this one, we are still getting the dead-tree versions through Snail Mail.  (Hey; I’ve got to sleep somewhere.  You pick your battles.)

 When I told my wife about the new policy, I DID get a surprise.  She said, “Well, sign up for it, for crying out loud.  I’m not paying extra for them to mail me copies when I can print them here.”

 Ah; baby steps.  Paper- On-Demand.  The surprise here is that, over time, even my wife,  as technology-averse as anyone could be, has acclimated to today’s pervasive technology-filled environment to such an extent that paying extra for delivery of paper seems ridiculous.  As recently as a couple of years ago, such an attitude would have been unthinkable.  (My personal guess is that after a few months, printing of monthly statements will end.  As I said, Baby Steps.)

 From this little kitchen-counter experience I draw hope for courts that have for a long time been slow to implement paper-on-demand practices via Electronic Content Management (ECM).  The classic curve of organizations’ readiness/willingness to engage in technological change is typically described as the spectrum from “Early Adopters” on the extreme front end, “Mainstream Adopters” as the technology becomes proven, and “Late Bloomers” once the technology has become ubiquitous.    On this curve, my wife is on the far end of the “Late Bloomer” category.  So is the legal profession in general, and many courts in particular.  Ten years ago, ECM with workflow was mainly occurring in the “Early Adopter” courts, who were implementing paper-on-demand in a paper and wet ink signature-centric justice environment.  Within the past five years, paper-on-demand has gone mainstream; and the justice environment (like the banking and financial world) has largely shifted to being organized to expect ECM in its operations.

 Now it’s time for the Late Bloomers.  My wife’s reaction to the bank’s notice gives me reason for being optimistic in thinking that attitudes among the least technologically aggressive courts may have evolved enough now to make the transition more welcome and less stressful than would have been though possible just a few short years ago.