Not Your Grandfather’s Courthouse: iPads, Electronic Document Filing, and Innovative Training Practice

by Evelyn Levine

by Evelyn Levine

The United States Federal Court System, despite a generally conservative user base along with a high level of security concerns, is increasingly relying on technology to work more efficiently during these budget-conscious times. Over the past decade, the federal court system has undergone a gradual revolution towards “paperless courthouses” and currently it is mandatory that all case-related documents are filed electronically by attorneys and available to the public on the internet. Court personnel rely on an electronic case management system to assist the public, to monitor case-related activity and to run statistical reports. Even many Federal Judges have gone electronic and iPads are now used by 60% of all federal judges at work, according to a 2012 court study.

With this investment in technology, the need for training has increased – both to limit frustration with new technology and to ensure its most effective use.  But there are significant obstacles – time is always limited in the courts; and with the current budget climate – money is especially tight.  Also, communication does not always flow freely among all the various levels of court personnel nor is training always given enough resources and validation in a hectic court environment.

Here is where the national cadre of court trainers comes in; with Court Trainer Luta Pleiss (District of Nebraska) leading the way. I spoke with Luta about her efforts in online community building, virtual project teams, and other innovative training solutions.

An Online Community of Practice for Court Trainers

Working in conjunction with the Federal Judicial Center (FJC) and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), Luta has coordinated a grass-roots community of court trainers, termed ATCOP (All Trainers Community of Practice) where, since 2008, approximately 300 court trainers across the country meet online to share ideas and training materials, work on national projects: and can draw upon a continuously expanding resource bank of materials and contact people, as needed.

According to Luta, it all began with a casual conversation between two trainers in very different locations, but with similar concerns, realizing that collaboration was needed to save time and money, and so that “we do not have to continually reinvent the wheel”.

One a recent project, Luta recruited a national team of trainers to develop a series of tutorials for new law clerks on legal research, electronic case filing and management, and other court software. This was done with the input of several Judges and with money from a grant supporting innovative court projects. Trainers developed individual tutorials using Adobe Captivate which were edited and collated by an outside vendor to be put on an internal training site. As courts hire many law clerks for a one to four year term and replace them regularly, this is an invaluable training tool saving time and money and ensuring that law clerks can get up to speed as quickly as possible.

Another program, offered in conjunction with the FJC, provides an opportunity for an individual court to develop an IT training team with a variety of stakeholders such as a Judge, an IT trainer, and IT support staff.  Court teams develop local IT training plans, with the help of a training professional using educationally sound  principles of needs assessment, design, development, implementation and evaluation, thereby ensuring appropriate and timely training is provided.

The trainers’ online community uses technology for train-the-trainer events  including distance-learning and on-demand training tutorials, one-time learning events, ongoing classes (such as a recent popular class on transitioning from WordPerfect to Word software–WordPerfect has remained popular in the legal community) and the option of virtually attending bi-annual national training conferences.

What have made these efforts so successful, according to Luta, are both the already existing collaborative court culture and a sense of being part of one court family, as well as the clear need for resources to meet the ever expanding training needs of the court community during these tight budget times.

In the future, Luta envisions the online community evolving to include a court exchange/marketplace where court trainers can advertise their particular expertise so that other courts can contact them to provide in-person or online training sessions.

iPads in the Courtroom?

Trainers are not the only ones working to meet the challenge of innovation in the courts.  Notably, one federal judge, Judge David Nuffer (District of Utah), a nationally recognized expert in court use of technology, also works in an advisory capacity on national court training issues, and advocates for increased training, at all levels, as a way to bolster the impact of the new technology.

I spoke to the Judge about his efforts to facilitate his colleagues’ use of technology to be more efficient in their daily tasks in the office, in the courtroom, and on the road.  Technology can positively impact the daily tasks of a judge which include managing cases, writing opinions, scheduling cases and hearings, managing courtroom proceedings, and working remotely from home or while traveling. An example of just-in-time performance support:  In the courtroom, during a trial, a Judge may need to access a document filed in a related court case. Now, the Judge can accomplish this using his iPad and logging into the court’s electronic database – all while still sitting on the bench and presiding over the trial in the courtroom.

The Judge also focused on how training Judges to utilize the technology available presents unique challenges. Training is seen as most credible when it is accomplished through Judge-to-Judge tutorials which are designed by and for Judges; and when training is directly linked to the daily tasks of a Judge. Additionally, IT Awareness programs are designed specifically for the older Judges and those who may not even know what is possible with the new technology.  At all levels, training is now seen not as a discrete event but as a continuous process.

Now is a time of rapid change in the federal courts, made all the more challenging since now is also a time of budget constraints, staff reductions and limited resources.  Currently, the courts face what could be described as a perfect storm of opportunity to promote innovation:  the need to be more efficient in order to save both time and money, the technology available to make that happen, the need to learn to use that technology quickly and effectively and concurrently the opportunity to use that technology to deliver the training needed.

About the Author

Evelyn Levine is currently the Training Manager for the U.S. District Court/Eastern District of New York.  Evelyn holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University. She has been an active member of the ASTD-NY chapter and has served the chapter as the newsletter editor and VP, Membership.