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How many members of the legal software community does it take to screw in a light bulb? A roomful. They have to hold a meeting to discuss all the ramifications of the change. Replace the light bulb with an increasingly popular way to transmit data, and you begin to have an idea of what legal software vendors and court officials are enduring while they hammer out the details of an open standard for a revolutionary way of exchanging information. This exciting method for data exchange is called “XML,” which stands for Extensible Markup Language. The beauty of XML lies in its ability to define content with a high level of specificity. So files can list not only people’s names, but also their Social Security numbers, jobs and whether they pay child support — all embedded in the code. Because single terms will contain a large amount of information, documents will have a remarkable level of searchability. Sensitive information can be hidden in the code, which means that public documents can be put on the Web without compromising a person’s privacy. Another attractive aspect of XML is its flexibility. Individual software vendors can easily tailor the code so it has a particular meaning. But for courts, especially when it comes to electronic filing of court papers, this is also part of its problem. For courts to not be locked into using a single vendor for e-filing, an open standard is necessary. To prevent XML applications from dissolving into a babel of standards, Vincent “Todd” Winchel, the director of the electronic court filing project at Georgia State University College of Law, started an organization to create XML standards for the legal software industry. According to Winchel, the idea of creating a standard has not always been met warmly. “From ’97 through ’98, there was a great deal of resistance and skepticism about the idea of standards from a variety of organizations,” Winchel says. “All have since bought into the process except West Group and the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). They joined as observers but not participants. This hasn’t been an easy process and it’s never been self-evident. And it’s still not.” In the case of the AOC, which has created its own electronic case filing system — known as CM/ECF, or Case Management/Electronic Case Filing — the federal courts do not expect to use outside vendors. Michael Greenwood, project manager of CM/ECF, explains, “We’re at this point not sure that legal XML standards that are being promulgated will fit in with the way the federal courts will do business.” The prototype of CM/ECF was tested in nine federal district, appellate and bankruptcy courts, and has now been declared the national system. It will be rolled out over the next four years to most federal courts. West Group simply disagrees with Winchel’s assessment of the situation. “We see our role as having participated all along. … We’ll continue to participate with the Legal XML organization and defining open standards,” says Kyle Christiansen, a spokesman for West Group. This is good news to Terrie Bousquin, director of the Judicial Information Division for the New Mexico state courts, who is against proprietary formats. “Without open standards, you have to constantly rewrite interfaces [when you change vendors], which costs money,” says Bousquin. “We want to decide whether to go to vendor C or D without having to write [a] new interface.” XML will make electronic filing of court papers much less costly and more time-efficient, both for courts and for attorneys. Right now, e-filing systems vary in sophistication. In its simplest form, lawyers can simply e-mail a filing, in the form of a word processing document, to a Web site and receive electronic confirmation that it has been accepted. A proposed standard of XML for e-filing is out, and is being used in New Mexico. The Georgia Courts Automation Commission is setting up a pilot program among five different trial courts and five vendors to test the inter-operability of the standard. Although a final decision on the vendors has yet to be made, the selection includes JusticeLink (which is the e-filing product of Courtlink), AtCourt, Counterclaim.com, E-filing.com, Gov24 and Verilaw. Meanwhile, an e-mail discussion group organized by Winchel continues to be active, although some are eager to see results. According to Jim McMillan, director of the court technology laboratory for the National Center for State Courts, the wait is understandable. “It’s like the kid with the new hammer,” says McMillan. “You want to use it to solve all sorts of problems. [XML] is the Veg-O-Matic of software.” So until the XML light bulb is screwed in, e-filing will continue to move forward at glacial speed, one meeting at a time. It’s certainly worth the wait. More information on Legal XML can be found at www.legalxml.com.

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