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Out of Order: Collaborative bind for courts

Government funded research and development has led to some of the most critical technological advances of the past 50 years. We have Uncle Sam to thank for audio cassettes, cell phone technology, and the Internet. (Although contrary to popular belief, not Tang, Velcro, or Teflon.) But government agencies themselves have been notoriously slow to adapt to a progressively more connected and collaborative world.

For the United States’ overworked court systems, calls to upgrade the technological infrastructure to facilitate easier information access and employee collaboration, along with the possibility to work remotely, have become common refrains. Standing in the way, however, has been the cost of these changes and a cautious legal system afraid of making them.

Fredric Lederer is at the forefront of that sea change, however. Chancellor Professor of Law at the William & Mary School of Law in Virginia, Lederer says courts will be forced to make the transition from moving literal mounds of paper to coordinating much of the work digitally — using the cloud, digital video and audio hookups, and other forms of collaborative technology — eventually in the near future.

The challenge for the U.S. court system is that it’s set against the backdrop of a lot of independent computer systems that need to be unified, he says.

“Are you going to do this work incrementally, or are you going to do that in one super-sized system?” Lederer asks. Though technological advances are expected to save the courts money in the long run, they can also be expensive to implement in one fell swoop.

In a recent example, California’s Judicial Council in late March scrapped a major plan to update the computer system for its 58 state courts—an effort that would have interconnected the state’s systems and converted paper files to electronic data, among other advances.

The problem: The project came with an anticipated $2 billion price tag, and the state had already spent as much as $500 million trying to get it off the ground. Before it was scuttled, the plan was poised to be the single largest public technology overhaul in California history.

What went wrong in that state is an all-too familiar bureaucratic story: a lack of know-how coupled with high costs, leading to wasted efforts. The same roadblocks are popping up in Georgia at the moment.

But reformers like Lederer are pressing for changes that would make courts more collaborative and increase efficiencies without breaking the bank. Indeed, Lederer says better collaboration and interconnectedness in the courtroom would save a lot of money.

But Lederer believes that lawyers and judges are conservative creatures by nature. They don’t want to make mistakes. That means there’s already an unwillingness to change in the face of shifting needs.

He thinks the legal community need to be shown that technological advancements can work in their favor, and believes tech companies could step up to do that.

Lederer says there’s a “huge market” for startups to provide their know-how to the field. After all, there are by some estimates 30 billion civil court cases filed in the United States every year. The civil court system alone has gotten bogged down by paperwork. The federal courts have managed tech upgrades better, moving toward an eFiling system. But that’s still “not collaborative,” Lederer says. “It just means we have e-data instead of paper.”

What it is, though, is a first step. And there are other collaborative means, he says, such as video conferencing and storing documents using the cloud. Those measures could open up the legal system and make it more efficient for other court business — even cross-examinations.

It’s evident by the success of the McGlothlin Courtroom in Virginia. The courtroom is considered the most technologically advanced in the world.

The courtroom, which Lederer oversees, is hub of what’s known a the Courtroom 21 Project at the William & Mary School of Law and is used for mock trials and as an incubator for new technology. For the last 20 years, it’s been expanding the reaches of what’s possible in the courtroom for students and the legal profession at large. It’s equipped for videoconferencing and has the ability to publish real-time court transcripts on the Internet.

Though the courtroom was started in the 1990s, it’s made some big leaps in recent years. Lederer has toyed with the idea of testing whether it’s feasible to create a sort of “anywhere courtroom.” In mock trials, the McGlothlin Courtroom has used videoconferencing with full-size flat-screen televisions, allowing for testimony and cross-examination to proceed from afar, while maintaining the appearance that all parties are in the same room.

Is that feasible for every courtroom? Probably not, at least for now. But considering how information management and logistics are major issues for the courts, and a major driver in legal costs, Lederer says he believes that in the next few years more courts will move toward electronic filing of motions and remote appearances in court.

In the end, it will come down to whether the savings trump the costs — as exorbitant as they seem to be in places like California. Lederer believes they do.

“We’re enhancing the lawyers’ efficiencies,” Lederer says. “And in the end, everybody saves.”

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