Interview: E-Filing Pioneer Mohammed Shaikh

Dr. Mohammed Shakih established IMAGE-X, Inc. computer software service company in 1987, where he developed a flexible high-performance Document Imaging system, providing integration with existing application and a diversity of hardware platforms. He has over 15 years of technical project management experience in courts, counties, hospitals, manufacturing and distribution companies nationwide. Mohammed received a Ph.D in Materials Science and an MBA in Finance from the University of Utah and a Bachelors and Masters of Technology from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. He also holds a Master of Information Technologies from the Association for Information and Image Management.

1. In your opinion, what are the driving forces behind e-filing initiatives at a governmental/court level?

Reduction of paper is the main force, but also reduction of costs related to paper, such as data entry costs, are the big motivators. When paper comes in, it has a built-in data entry cost, which is much higher than people realize. The estimation for data entry cost per year for the federal government alone is around $240 million. Another paper forecast is that in ten years, the amount of paper generated for child support filings alone can fill up the state of New York, seven feet deep! A third motivation is faster information. With 9-11, a lot of information now has to flow between different agencies. Having standardized data will drastically help everyone facilitate this.

2. How long has electronic court filing been in existence?

The whole thing started around 1997, and I've been involved since the beginning.

3. Can you give a brief history of the e-filng? What are some current topics of discussion or phases of adoption?

Basically, what everyone has realized is that the way e-filing was conceived in the dotcom days doesn't work. We all thought that if you create a good e-filing site, everyone will run and start filing. Initially, we saw a lot of interest from the courts. They did some work on e-filing and allowed some companies to install systems, but there were not enough filers for all the various classifications. So then, the courts targeted "low lying fruit," like asbestos cases and class actions lawsuits where they could mandate e-filing.

Overall, e-filing has not fulfilled the promise. We have solved the problem by realizing that for any dotcom e-filing website to work, you have to be mindful of two parties: 1) the receiver and 2) the sender. The sender has been neglected in the e-filing arena, because everyone including the courts agreed that a lot of people would actually use the e-filing system. Just to give you an example, when we installed our first e-filing site on the first day of the Millennium (the court clerk insisted on this date), we had massive television coverage - ABC, CBS, NBC - but only got a total of three e-filings through October of 2000. Not exactly an exciting picture.

So we sat down with the clerk and found out where e-filing would make the most sense. We realized that collections companies that do a lot of filing were the prime candidates for doing some kind of electronic filing if we could create a work flow process that made sense to them. That's when we realized that a lot of legal processes use forms. We then created an XML-based form that allowed us to approach all of the filing types where there was a high volume of filers and forms and provide a win-win situation for the filer as well as the receiver. Right now, the main success has been in the areas of collections, child support and family law - all very form-base filings.

4. If PDF becomes a required standard format for document images, will Adobe have a de facto monopoly?

Actually, PDF is not a standard in the courts. PDF is a standard for sending, but because all the imaging systems at the court level are TIFF image-based, courts expect that the PDF will be converted to TIFF. TIFF was adopted by the Association of Information and Image Management (AIIM) as a standard image platform in 1993. All of the imaging systems now using the Group 4 TIFF standard, so any particular imaging system file can be seen by all other imaging systems. Current fax machines use Group 3 TIFF (150 dots per inches), and the next generation of fax will used Group 4 (200-300 dpi), which has slightly higher resolution.

5. Do you see nationwide standards being implemented?

Yes, definitely. The main concept of electronic filing is document and data exchange. So the standards revolve around document image standards (discussed above) and data tagging standards. In e-filing, data meta-tagging originated as Legal XML 1.0 and 1.1. California is now working on Legal XML 2.0. Right now, Legal XML 1.1 is the prevalent standard used to tag the data, and this will be augmented with Legal XML 2.0 once California publishes it. The difference between XML 1.1 and 2.0 is that 2.0 includes court policy. So it basically identifies in what format a particular court is going to accept data. It's a little more intelligent that XML 1.1.

6. What is the current status of e-signatures?

The electronic signature issue is one current hurdle that court e-filing faces. Each state has a different condition on the signature. California has basically passed a rule that says no signature is needed on electronic forms. Washington requires a digital signature, and that becomes a problem because signatures are difficult to do with e-filing. In Georgia, you have to provide a "look alike" signature -- you may have encountered these if you've ever used a credit card in a department store and had to sign your name on an electronic pad. Georgia insists that you have to have a look-alike signature on any document for the purposes of service.

7. What is some of the nomenclature used in the e-filing arena?

There are two big ones: 1) EFSP - electronic filing service provider; 2) EFM - electronic file manager, which communicates with the case management system and document management system. So EFM is what sits at the courthouse, inside or outside the firewall, and EFSP is a third party service provider who provides the technology for filing or a website where a person can come and file. We found that although we thought people would come to the website, that doesn't happen. You have to go to people and give them software that will connect to your website without them having to do a duplicate data entry. What we call "one click e-filing" basically could start from your matter management software, like ProLaw or Abacus. And with one click, all of the cases that you need to file will be filed right from your software into the website or web server.

On the other hand, if the EFSP is only providing a website that users have to go to in order to file, and fill in all the data and all the forms again, then the filer won't have any interest. Today, what happens for a lawyer is that he has a secretary or assistant, and he creates all the matter in the documents in the law firm's system. Literally, the filing process is printing and writing the check, which is done by the assistant or secretary. So, neither the lawyer not the assistant has any interest in going to a website and filling in all that data again. Unless you can create one-click e-filing, e-fling will not take off. This realization has really paid off for us.

8. How critical is live technical support to e-filing?

I think that unless you can create software which will not require the cost of support, e-filing will not pick up. E-filing programs have to be as simple as creating a Word document. Today, to create a pleading in Word, you do not require technical support often once you have gone through the training. The same thing has to happen to e-filing, and that's exactly what we've done. We've taken the various matter management systems and document creation systems and have brought them together to create a standard package which consists of the documents that the attorney will have to submit and it will also extract the data information and create an XML file, so that we can then hand the document and the data over to the court.

9. What are some of the issues of an e-filing system where the data is controlled by the EFSP?

This has been a big controversy in the e-filing arena. Generally, data that is submitted by the filer becomes property of the court once it has been filed. Most court executives insist that they want to keep the data under their control. This way, anybody can get the data from the court at whatever rate the court wants to charge - generally it's free. Some of the e-filing vendors thought that if they could control the data, they would have an advantage in providing their services. Courts have not taken a firm stance one way or the other on this issue because e-filing really has not taken off, but every court's final intention is that the document and the data should be in their control.

Another problem we've seen with this kind of system concerns the acceptance of documents. Under a third-party hosted system, when the document and data is received by the vendor's server, it is "accepted," but the court staff is not really approving or rejecting the document because they haven't yet received it. The architecture that we have developed has basically says that the document is not accepted until the court sees it, and so as a result, the server has to be at the courthouse. What we've created is more of a distributor system, where we are allowing the court to decide when they accept the document, and we act as a pass-though. We promise the court that we will not resell or keep the data, that's not our interest. Our interest is purely in being a service provider.

More discussion needs to happen on the privacy of the submitted data. Basically, the keeper of the data decides the privacy of the data. If a private company holds the data, their interest will not be the same as the court.

10. How does imaging fit into the e-filing picture?

Remember that e-fling is the exchange of documents and data. The documents that comes in will come in different formats. Some lawyers create documents in Word, WordPerfect, PDF format or in paper format. Naturally, the court cannot have accommodate all these various formats -- it would be too onerous for the court. The courts are insisting that the resulting document has to come in either as a PDF or a TIFF format, which is an image format that court imaging systems use. Most of the courts are saying that a document that comes in through e-filing has to be compatible with its imaging systems and the data on the document should be able to flow directly into its case management system.

11. Where do you see e-filing in the next 3-5 years?

We've learned a lot in the past few years. Things are changing slowly. Overall, in almost every environment, people are realizing that there's no reason to have so much paper, and the paper has to go away. What we're finding is that with document/data exchange, governmental agencies are the first adopters. We call these agencies "multi-filers" because they file multiple cases in a month or in a day. Just like in the IRS tax filings, once the accountants started e-filing on behalf of business, then individuals began to use it. But we're at least 5 to 10 years away from wide acceptance of e-filing by the courts and the judges, because 1) the infrastructure is not there at the court level; and 2) there are remaining legal issues (like signatures).

If tomorrow the courts, by federal regulation, were forced to accept electronic filing, naturally e-filing would pick up very fast. The software is already there, and whether it is CourtLink or us or another vendor, there are a lot of available solutions. This will save the filers and courts a lot of money.

12. Does e-filing cut into attorneys' profits?

The people that are e-filing are already going to non-attorney third parties. Certain states discourage this practice, while other states actually encourage it. In California, for example, there are non-legal services like We The People, where they assist you in filing but do not act as your attorney. Attorneys are always worried about this, but it's been proven that these quasi-legal services do not hurt attorneys. To me, e-filing is just a means of transport of the document and the data. The creation of the document still has to be done by a professional. Just because you can electronically file, doesn't mean you can file a piece of garbage.

13. What are some other applications for electronic filing?

What we have done is take the same technology and applied it in other areas, like electronic recording of documents. Surprisingly, we're finding out that it is a lot easier to get e-recording approved than it is to get e-filing approved. Auditors and recorders seem to be a lot more aggressive in terms of e-recording than the courts are in terms of e-filing. We started in e-recording a few years back, and that has picked up drastically for us. Due to all the reconveyances and refinancing that was happening, the paper problem for recorders was so drastic that when they saw a solution, it was easier for them to jump in.