Tech Tips For eFiling In North Carolina
*This article was originially published by the North Carolina Bar Association.
The pilot for the eCourts launch in North Carolina went live on February 13 in Wake, Lee, Harnett, and Johnston counties. There are several components of the eCourts system. Tyler Technologys’ Odyssey is the integrated suite of products for attorneys, court personnel and the public that will replace 40+ legacy systems for eFiling, financial management, and document management for all case types. This integrated system is called the Odyssey Integrated Case Management System (ICMS). During the first phase, several components will be rolled out. eFiling, also known as File & Serve, enables you to file documents electronically to the clerk’s office and pay filing fees. Portal allows you to access court information online, including searching capabilities and paying fines and fees.
As eCourts goes into production for the pilot, the Administrative Office of the Courts is maintaining an online “living” Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) for attorneys. Here are some tech tips to further the documented responses to the FAQs.
Email and email management will play a vital role in File & Serve and other eCourt components. Your firm will have an administrative account, and then each user will have a login with email and password. You will also receive notifications via email when filing submissions are successful and the clerk accepts or returns the filing. Bad things can happen when you miss an email from the system, so be prepared.
Check All of Your Spam Filters
If you use Outlook or Gmail (or really any email service), you probably have a filter that catches spam. However, sometimes perfectly legitimate email lands in the spam filter, often randomly, even after you have received email from that party many times. Make it a habit to check your email spam filter. If you are in a firm that has an additional layer of malware and spam protection for email, like AppRiver SpamLab or Barracuda Email Security Gateway, make sure to check the email notification you get daily (weekends included) for any emails, including attachments, that might have gotten identified as spam or malicious email. Get help from the administrator to add the court’s domain to the allowed list if you don’t know how.
Scrutinize Rules, Automations, and Filters
Microsoft Outlook and Gmail, both popular email programs, have ways to create automations that take actions such as moving an email to a certain folder and bypassing the inbox, sending an auto response, and many other productivity enhancements. However, if you are using a lot of these automations, they can start interfering with each other and malfunctioning. Use the built-in rules and filters sparingly and check them occasionally for errors or unexpected behaviors.
Additional automations you may have created through IFTTT, Zapier, or Microsoft Power Automate may have unintended consequences. Make sure to test the automations and do not ignore any notifications that they aren’t working. Also check for any automatic email activity from your document or practice management application if it integrates with your email.
Be Wary of Smart Inboxes
Microsoft Outlook has Focus Inbox, Gmail has automated categories and Priority Inbox, and there are add-ins to help you filter your inbox to see what is truly relevant, like SaneBox artificial intelligence. However, there is always a risk that these tools meant to help you may filter out important messages. Proceed with caution and learn how to turn these tools on and off.
Act Right Away
If you move email to folders or to a different repository like a practice management application or document management system, it is easy to move email to the wrong place. Dragging and dropping or choosing from a drop-down list of folders affords many opportunities for error. If you get notifications from the court, make it an action item by adding it to your task list or your calendar before you move it out of your inbox. You can also reduce errors when dragging and dropping the email to the wrong folder by creating a QuickStep in Outlook like “Categorize and Move” for court-related emails.
Keep Your Inbox Clean
Separate work from personal email. If you use one email address for everything from your News and Observer subscription to Costco ads to client communications, your inbox will be overloaded, and it will be easier to miss important email. Keep your personal and work life separate, preferably in two separate inboxes (rather than switching to another inbox within the same application). You can also create instant email aliases for subscriptions or for online orders in Gmail or in Outlook.
Conditional Formatting in MS Outlook
In Microsoft Outlook you can change the appearance of an email based on multiple criteria (sender, subject, who is in the “to” line, etc.). This is a rule, but you set it up in the View settings. You can format emails from the court to appear in your inbox and in any other folder you save it to (purposely or inadvertently) with something other than the default font – perhaps Bauhaus 93 in hot pink? Anything to make it stand out. Gmail does not have conditional formatting, but they do have color labels and color-coded stars.
Get a Professional Email Platform
If you are in a smaller firm and have multiple users sharing an inbox or use personal email for work, you may consider getting a professional email address at a domain name so that you can create a firm account or alias (firm@ or info@), as well as individual email addresses. Moving to an email platform like MS Exchange or Google Workspace will also give you administrative access so you can continue to receive email even if someone leaves. Here are some instructions to follow to get this done.
Redaction is the responsibility of the filing attorney or support staff. You will need to know the court rules and understand what information in a filing requires redaction. You will also need to ensure that you, and your team, understand how to properly redact. The filings will be available to the public, so it is incumbent upon the firm to have the proper tools and know how to mark and apply redaction.
The best method is to use software to redact a digital file, as it is easier and completely effective if it is done correctly. In addition to Adobe Acrobat, there are many applications available that will securely redact a digital document. If you need to redact a document in its native format of Microsoft Word or Excel, there are products like Bighand Redact Assistant. For Mac users, there is Kofax Power PDF Standard for Mac or PDFelement. Corel WordPerfect Office Professional has built-in redaction features. Alternatives to Adobe Acrobat for Windows users include the Nitro Productivity Suite ($159 per license) and Kofax Power PDF Advanced f/k/a Nuance ($179 per license).
How to Redact in Adobe Acrobat
Adobe Acrobat Pro DC ($20 per user per month for Mac or PC) and Adobe Acrobat Pro 2020 ($538.80 per license for Mac or PC) are the products currently supported by Adobe that provide deep functionality and are the de facto standard in many law offices. Instructions for redacting in Acrobat Pro require that the text or images are marked for redaction and that the redaction is then applied. The redaction is only applied once it has been saved as a new document so as not to overwrite the original. Many other redaction tools do not prompt the user to save the file as a new document, so this feature in Acrobat may alone be worth the price of admission. Adobe Acrobat Pro also prompts the user to remove metadata from the file during this process.
Adobe Acrobat Pro and other software provide tools to search a document or set of documents for keywords to be redacted. They also provide pattern matching options to look for phone numbers, social security numbers, email addresses and more across a document or set of documents. While this feature is very handy and can speed up the time spent redacting documents, be aware that the tools are imperfect. If a word is misspelled or if a social security number lacks a hyphen, then the automation fails to find and mark the text for redaction. If you are using search or pattern matching across a large set of documents the search will not include any secured (encrypted) PDFs in the set. There is no substitute for a person to review each document to ensure that all content is properly marked for redaction and that the redaction is applied.
No Free Lunch
A quick search of the internet reveals many free redaction services. However, most of these require the user to upload the file to the cloud. Without a thorough examination of the terms of service, privacy policies, and storage retention of your files, these services should likely be avoided due to the sensitive and confidential nature of legal documents – especially those that need redacting!
Many of the FAQs focus on questions attorneys have about scanning documents. For instance, if an attorney needs to scan something while in court. Or, if a private attorney doesn’t have a scanner to eFile orders. The file format must be a PDF, not an image file (like a JPG, PNG, GIF), so if you are planning to use your smartphone to take a picture of a document to upload, consider how you will convert it to PDF. While there are apps to convert a picture to a PDF, there is more involved to save the file with other client files.
Powerful Smartphone Apps
If you are using Microsoft 365 Business, get the Microsoft 365 (f/k/a Office) app, which lets you scan to PDF or Word (or Excel!). You can scan to PDF with your smartphone or tablet, create PDFs from pictures, and more. It is free with your MS 365 business subscription. It will automatically save the file to your OneDrive account, or wherever you want to save it.
If you subscribe to Adobe Acrobat DC and you get the Adobe Scan (free) app you can use your phone to scan to PDF. Just take a picture, and it converts to PDF automatically. It will also save the file automatically to your document cloud library. This will keep you from having to move the file off your phone manually.
You want to make sure your smartphone is adequately secured for interacting with confidential and sensitive documents. You may also consider a portable scanner, light and small enough to fit in your bag, but functional enough to scan multiple pages with ease. So that you don’t have to depend on Wi-Fi, consider a USB or Bluetooth connection with your laptop.
You will have to file all documents in PDF format, including those attached to a filing. While the FAQ suggest that Adobe is preferred, there are many ways to create a PDF file from an image or Word document. However, there are some good reasons to get a business-focused PDF manipulation application rather than using a free product or service.
You will likely need to combine, move, insert, and delete pages in a PDF file. You may need to crop, run optical character recognition, redact, sign, edit, or Bates stamp a document. Products like Adobe Acrobat Pro or Kofax Power PDF provide these features and many more.
If you choose to use MS Word to save a document to PDF or “print” to PDF, or scan a document to PDF in your computer, be aware that how you create a PDF file matters. For instance, “printing” a Word document to PDF will remove hyperlinks to internal references and external sites for embedded links.
If you have the free Acrobat Reader, be aware that it is limited in what it will do and you cannot combine pages, redact, or meet other needs that will become more common when you begin eFiling. If you choose to use or upgrade to Acrobat Pro DC, be aware that it is a very powerful and feature-rich product that can be a huge boon for eFiling and reducing reliance on paper in the law office. There are many tips and tricks to use it effectively.
According to the FAQ, the file size limit is 26.21 MB (per filing). There can be multiple filings within a single envelope (i.e., per submission). Twenty-six megabytes is roughly equivalent to the 26 volume 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, you do need to know how to check what size your file is before you upload it. There are a number of ways to do this, including going to the File menu and viewing properties for a document, or looking at the file size in File Explorer or in your cloud storage. If the file size is listed in KB (Kilobytes), you can convert it to MB (Megabytes).
If you need to reduce the file size you can use the reduction tool built into Acrobat and competing products, or “print” to PDF if you don’t need active embedded hyperlinks. Files that are created from scanned images converted to PDF tend to be much larger files. If possible, convert files from MS Word or other word processors and combine them with a PDF manipulation product, rather than printing all the documents and scanning them to create a single file.
Laptops and Tablets
One question asked was “Will the lawyers be expected to bring any paper docs to court? Should the lawyers bring paper docs as backup ’just in case?’” The response is “it is not expected for the attorneys to bring paper docs to court as all case files will be done electronically. If an attorney would like to access Portal to view cases and documents, they can bring a laptop to access Portal in the courtroom from their device (laptop / phone). Devices should be able to connect wirelessly in the court facility. Devices should be sufficiently charged because generally power outlets are not available in the courtroom. Current plans include providing tablets for attorneys or self-represented litigants who need to access information in Portal.”
If you do not already have a laptop or tablet, you may want to investigate getting one. Or, if your current laptop is slow and out of date, consider an upgrade. Laptops are much lighter and have better battery life than even a few years ago. Keep in mind that to increase battery life and make them lightweight, they also have fewer ports, so don’t rely on a CD ROM! The best brands and specs vary, though for Windows devices, Lenovo and Dell are always solid choices. Make sure to buy a business device, with specifications and warranty and operating systems designed for use in a business environment. If you are moving from a desktop to laptop or upgrading your laptop plan your migration from your old device to the new carefully. Depending on the age of your device, you may need to update other peripherals, as well as software, so don’t wait until the last minute.
Additional elements of eCourts include: Guide & File to assist users in creating basic legal documents; Attorney Manager case management platforms for District Attorneys and Public Defenders; eDiscovery for District Attorneys to share digital evidence; eWarrants electronic warrant repository; Brazos electronic citation platform, CRAVE courtroom audio/visual enhancements; and Financial Manager financial management system for the Clerks of Court. Keep an eye on the FAQ and contact the NCBA Center for Practice Management if you or your firm needs any help with the law office technology to help you successfully use our new eCourts.
About the Author
Catherine Sanders Reach serves as director of the NCBA Center for Practice Management.Read More by Catherine >