Don’t Fear E-Filing

This year, the Vermont Judiciary will start the rollout of its Odyssey Case Management System (“CMS”).

In January, Judge Kate Hayes, Andy Stone (the Judiciary’s CMS Project Director) and me presented a CLE on the new system.  Our CLE opened the Vermont Bar Association’s YLD Thaw.  The VBA has graciously made the material available here.  Judge Hayes & Andy addressed practical issues, while I touched on ethics issues associated with e-filing.

This will sound odd coming from a blogger who built this blog on the mantra “competence includes tech competence.”  But, with respect to the ethics issues associated with the new CMS, my message is this:

  • Don’t get too caught up in the tech aspect of it.  The fact is, your duties will be no different than in a paper-based system.  That is, the duty to provide clients with competent representation will include understanding what the rules of electronic filing require.

On that note, I have good news.

E-filing isn’t new.  It was introduced in the state courts in 2010.  In addition, many of you practice in the federal District Court and Bankruptcy Court.  E-filing is a thing in each.  In all my time here, I’ve received fewer than 3 complaints alleging that a lawyer’s lack of tech proficiency negatively impacted a client’s matter.

The Vermont Judiciary has adopted rules for electronic filing.  As I understand it, a committee is looking at prposed changes to the rules.  If and when those changes are made, they will be available on the Judiciary’s website.

The CMS rollout will progress in stages.  That is, the Judicial Bureau, the Environmental Unit, the Supreme Court, and the various units (counties) will come online over time.  As courts in which you appear transitionto CMS, you should familiarize yourself with the rules for electronic filing.

Fear not.  Remember: fewer than 3 complaints.

Also, when it comes to technology, it’s usually not “tech” that gets a lawyer in trouble. It’s using tech to do something that would’ve been unethical if done without tech.

For instance, lawsuits against stooge defendants are a problem whether filed electronically or on paper.

(The same post includes a digest of cases & opinions in which lawyers were sanctioned for disclosing client confidences in response to negative online reviews.  Remember, it’s not the fact that the confidences were disclosed online that’s the problem: it’s that they were disclosed!)

Similarly, as I blogged here, comments that would’ve been inappropriate in a telegram to a client are no less inappropriate because they were made via Messenger.

Which gets me to final point: whether by smoke signal, spoken word, typed document, or electronic submission, dishonesty is unethical.

Preparing for the Montreal seminar, I asked attorney regulators in states that have moved exclusively to e-filing to share with me any cases in which lawyers were disciplined for conduct involving “e-filing.”  Here are some of the responses:

  1.  “The worst ethical dilemma/violation I have experienced with e-filing involved a recently terminated associate from a Regional Workers Comp Firm.  He called me to tell me that once his firm terminated him a managing partner ordered a surviving associate to ‘pull all his files and draft and e-file Motions to Withdraw stating [the terminated lawyer] is no longer with the Firm…’  The Partner then directed the associate/assistant to e-file the Motions under terminated attorney’s name and file with [the terminated lawyer’s] e-file credentials!!!!  Terminated attorney received email notifications on several Motions and Orders granting the Motions before he was able to call the Clerk’s office and state that someone was filing under his name without his permission.”

Yes, believe it or not, impermissibly using another lawyer’s e-filing credentials, and forging that lawyer’s e-signature, is a problem.  And it’s a problem that has little to do with “tech.”

2.  “We have had a couple of instances of one lawyer allegedly e-signing opponents                   counsel to an unagreed to stipulation.”

Yes, believe it or not, fraudulently “signing” opposing counsel’s name is a problem.  And it’s a problem that has nothing to do with “tech.”

3.  “Mike, here’s one for you … a lawyer ‘e-filed’ a declaration with the expert signing            electronically (“/s/”) … but the lawyer knew the expert refused to sign … our court              suspended the lawyer for 90 days.”

Yes, believe it or not, fraudulently “signing” an expert’s name to a declaration that you know the expert had refused to sign herself is a problem.  And it’s a problem that has nothing to do with “tech.”

Finally, I became aware of a case in which a United States Bankruptcy Court (not Vermont’s) raised concerns over a lawyer’s lack of proficiency at filing electronically.  So, the court assigned the lawyer “homework.”  The “homework” was to re-file 9 documents, without any mistakes, and without assistance from another lawyer.

The lawyer paid another attorney to file the documents.

As a result, the bankruptcy court suspended the lawyer from practicing before it. Again, intentionally disobeying a court order has little to do with “tech” or “e-filing.”

Will e-filing be new to some of you? Yes.

Will you have to learn things along the way?  Yes.

Will some of you need help figuring out how to e-file?  Yes.

Is mandatory e-filing likely to put your license at risk?  No.

As I’ve indicated, it’s not e-filing itself that trips up attorneys.  Rather, it’s engaging in conduct that would’ve been unethical at every moment in the entire history of a regulated practice of law.

Don’t fear tech.  Don’t fear e-filing.

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