Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

November 2017Volume 105Number 11Page 24

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E-Filing

Choosing an E-Filing Service Provider

By
Ed Finkel

It's likely most lawyers will opt for the baseline (and free) option, but vendors offer a variety of for-fee features. E-filing early adopters discuss the options and why you might want them.

Mandatory e-filing goes into effect across Illinois on January 1 (you knew that, right?), and one task that belongs at the top of every law firm's to-do list is choosing from among the "electronic filing service providers" who are the pathways to the e-filing system. No service provider, no e-filing. It is not a DIY project.

The service providers, also known as EFSPs, offer a myriad of features that lawyers will need to compare and contrast in making their decision: prices and payment options, support features like call center hours and web browsers served, and additional services like document conversion, extended document storage, detailed or simpler reporting, and proof of service to other parties.

By mid-September, the vast majority of those in Illinois who had signed up, about 93 percent, had chosen Odyssey eFileIL, a free service provided by Tyler Technologies, the vendor hired by the Illinois courts to implement e-filing statewide. It does not offer 24-hour phone support and has fewer of the additional services. (The others - except FileTime, which also has a free option - charge between $1 and $3.99 per filing and offer a monthly rate.)

That sign-up pattern is typical of other states in which Tyler Technologies has worked, at least at the outset, says Terry Derrick, senior director of e-solutions for the Texas-based company. He notes that in Texas, where Tyler has provided services for a few years, 79 percent of filers currently use Odyssey.

"The majority of the filing community will start with a free solution to see if that will meet their needs," he says. "If it doesn't…they will venture out and look at value-added services offered by the other EFSPs."

During presentations to bar associations and other legal communities, Tyler encourages filers to try out different vendors before settling on one of them. Besides the Odyssey eFileIL, other Illinois certified providers at press time are File & Serve Xpress, FileTime, Green Filing, Legal e-File, MyFileRunner, US Legal PRO:2File, and OneLegal. (See sidebar for a link to more info.) Other vendors are likely to join in the future - 14 now vie for Texas lawyers' business.

"There is a small portion of the filing community that heeds our counsel as far as evaluating all of the solutions," Derrick says. "But the community typically starts with the free solution and then will venture out from there as they find it necessary."

The IBJ surveyed three lawyers who are early adopters of e-filing in Illinois: Maria Berger of the Berger Law Firm in Byron; L. Drew Hickey, partner with Bolen, Robinson and Ellis, LLP, in Decatur; and Trent Bush, partner with Ward, Murray, Pace & Johnson in Sterling and a member of both the ISBA's Committee on Legal Technology and the Illinois Supreme Court's Special Committee on E-Business. They discuss the various options and why they might appeal to a given law firm.

Starting out free

Maria Berger uses Odyssey and says she doesn't think she will need any of the extra "bells and whistles" provided by the other six EFSPs, although she notes that the Odyssey interface service might confound some low-tech users. "It's sometimes hard to tell if there's some place for you to click," she says.

Drew HickeyDrew Hickey says her firm is starting with Odyssey and advises others to do the same while getting up to speed on the various features and benefits the other six provide.

"It's going to be based on what the firm does every day, what they're going to need," she says. "You can always ramp up as you get more into it. Lawyers need to start somewhere…. Each person's preference is going to be so individualized for their practice, it makes it hard to recommend one over the other [without knowing a given firm's needs]."

Hickey notes that because her firm does so much filing - probably four or five times per day - the costs would add up quickly.

"If I had to pay $4 to file a notice, I'm going to have to pass that along to my client," she says, or firms can "absorb some of that cost yourself, based on whatever benefits you're getting from the service.… Some of that, you may not be able to pass along to the client. But with the services you get, it may be worth it. We file a lot every day. You may not file as often if you have a different type of practice, so it may not be cost-prohibitive."

Trent BushTrent Bush agrees that cost is top-of-mind for most practitioners. Beyond that, "what it comes down to is what people are comfortable with from a user standpoint," he says. "Probably the best way to figure that out is to get on [the vendor's] site and try. A lot of these products have tours or tutorials."

A close second to cost will be usability, in terms of how well the mechanics of e-filing work for the individual attorney, Bush says. "Users want it to be as simple as possible - it's what each user is comfortable with and feels is the most straightforward product to use," he says. "The main thing is to get in and try it, now. It's to everyone's benefit to start learning before [cases have to be e-filed]."

For-fee features

So what are the leading for-fee features, and why would anyone want them?

Monthly billing. Tyler doesn't know what types or sizes of firms make up the "other 20 percent" in states like Texas who use the value-added features. But Derrick says the monthly billing feature for filing fees, offered by five out of the other six vendors, is probably the one that attracts most for-fee users.

"It's easier for a filing community member, in some circumstances, to be able to get a monthly bill and pay one lump sum," he says. "At the other end of the spectrum, some attorneys say this makes it more difficult to bill customers because you can't compare that transaction order number to that client. It's good for some and not for others."

Berger figures the monthly billing will make more sense for larger firms that have bookkeeping departments, although they will still need to break out those charges per client - or eat them. "[For me,] paying the fee at the time you're making the filing makes the most sense," she says.

Extended storage. Another value-added feature that appeals to some filers is extended document storage, which "allows filers to go in and review - look at cases and filings filed through that specific portal," Derrick says.

Hickey's firm stores documents in the cloud and thus doesn't need the extended storage features, which is another reason the firm is opting for the free service, she says. "Some people may want to pay the extra monthly fee to get something stored on an external server," she says. "Some people have been electronic since way back when; some people may still be doing pen and paper files." For the pen-and-paper filers, extended storage may be more attractive.

But she cautions: "You have to be careful because you pay for the storage you get. You might end up storing a bunch of stuff you don't need and pay more for that….People are going to have to look into that to see what cost-savings they can get."

Maria BergerBerger says the one feature that might entice her to use one of the paid services is extended storage, partially because it's a bit harder to catalog documents as they come in via e-mail - and if you overlook one, you can always go back to find it. "E-mails are always easier to overlook," she says. "But if you miss something, it's not like you can't still go to the clerk's office and get a copy. I'm not sure that's worth it to me."

Bush says that as long as attorneys and firms have tight systems set up to immediately save such documents into their directory structure or practice management software, he doesn't see the value in extended document storage. "But maybe for some, who don't have the infrastructure, it would be valuable," he says.

Document conversion. While Berger doesn't think document conversion (e.g., converting a Microsoft Word document into a PDF) would be worth paying for, she says lawyers who are uncomfortable with technologically might think otherwise. "I do know plenty of people who don't feel comfortable," she says. "Or if you didn't want to pay for Adobe. I wouldn't pay for it just to convert to PDFs."

Hickey says Bolen, Robinson uses Adobe "all day, every day" and finds the software especially worthwhile for its ability to handle redactions. "If you don't have Adobe, and you're using one of the other file types, you would want something [that can handle redaction]," she says.

Bush, sees little value in document conversion. "Every attorney should know how to convert their Word documents to PDF by now," he says. (The e-filing page on PracticeHQ has tips for creating PDFs - see the sidebar.)

Proof of service. Some providers advertise the ability to customize proof-of-service, for example, allowing lawyers to quickly pull up the e-mail contact of the person you want to serve, Berger says. "When you go to serve, you can choose who you're serving in terms of opposing counsel and just have that address served," she says.

Hickey says she can see how customized proof-of-service would be helpful in "a big litigation where you have multiple defendants and plaintiffs. I could see where you would want to make sure everybody got it," Hickey says.

Support and training. Filers should think about what customer support they will need, Hickey says. "That's just based on what your practice is," she says. The relatively limited hours of Odyssey eFileIL "works for us for several reasons. We don't generally work on the weekends. We haven't needed a lot of support.… But if you need 24-hour support, you will want to look for that - if you have international clients who need something now," for example.

Derrick also would advise filers to pay attention to support hours, as well as what types of support (phone, e-mail, chat, etc.). "A lot of people are taking advantage of chat support," he says. "Does the vendor offer a knowledge center [with] things like user guides, tips and tricks videos, and documentation centers?" Some lawyers will place high value on that.

Attorneys and firms also should take note of training offerings, Derrick says. And then look at "above and beyond" features like real-time service tracking and proof of delivery, by which "people can guarantee something was delivered at a certain time and a certain IP address."

Free customer support and 24-7 service would be beneficial to attorneys needing to e-file by a certain deadline outside of business hours, Berger says. "That's part of the benefit attorneys are looking for: the ability to file something and still have it [stamped] on that date even if it's past 5 o'clock," she says, adding, "You really shouldn't be filing at 11:59 p.m."

Bush says the support from Tyler for the free product has been solid the couple of times he's needed to use them. "I've not had the occasion to worry about something outside business hours that was critical," he says. "If you were in panic mode because you had to have something filed by midnight, I could see where that would be very handy."

Browser functionality

Finally, firms and attorneys should make sure their current internet browsers will be compatible with the service they plan to choose before doing anything else, Hickey says.

"If you have to switch over to a different browser just to do your filing, that's going to be a big issue," she says. "You want to make sure that whatever you have [is compatible with your EFSP]. Some people might be running older systems."

Bush hopes that will be rare. "I would think most people are going to have the technological framework in place that would work on any of these," he says. "If somebody's using Internet Explorer 6, they probably have some problems, anyway, with being vulnerable [to hackers]."

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
edfinkel@earthlink.net

Visit PracticeHQ for Essential E-Filing Resources

PracticeHQ, the ISBA's new law practice management and technology portal, contains a rich array of e-filing resources. Visit today and find:

  • A comparison chart of Illinois certified e-filing service providers.
  • A link to ISBA CLE and articles about e-filing.
  • Numerous articles and videos about creating and using PDF documents, essential skills for e-filing.
  • A link to the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois' Guide to E-Filing and IOLTA Accounts.

You'll find that and much more at https://www.isba.org/practicehq/manage/efiling.