Originally published March 25, 2016. Updated December 22, 2016
Now that electronic court filing (eFiling) is fast becoming the normal requirement in the state courts, as it has already in the federal courts, a number of important issues are coming up: how do internal work practices need to change to ensure documents are successfully filed, and should lawyers be changing how they write and prepare documents for this era of on-screen reading?
At One Legal, we have been physically filing court documents for almost 27 years and electronically filing for more than a decade. In that time, we’ve learned what it takes to ensure documents aren’t rejected and what works best in terms of style and format.
How are your documents being read?
We typically find that in courts where eFiling has been established, more than half of judges choose to read papers on-screen, either on a laptop or a tablet.
So, while it is likely that a minority will continue to favor paper — meaning that you’ll definitely want to look for an eFiling service provider, such as One Legal, that includes the option to add on delivery a courtesy judge’s copy as you place your filing — many will now be reading your documents electronically.
“So what?” you might be thinking. The problem is that people read differently on-screen than they do on paper. For example, a 2014 study comparing comprehension and recall after reading either on paper or on a Kindle found that on-screen readers performed “significantly worse” when it came to the recall of the main facts and order of arguments.
That’s because on-screen readers read differently. Martin Siegel, a lawyer in Texas where eFiling has been around for a decade, has noted that “online readers jump around, skimming and seizing on bits of text… they seek content in an F-shaped pattern, looking down the left side for structural clues and then focusing on headings and first sentences of paragraphs.”
So, what should you do differently?
We’re not saying that formatting and typography are now central to legal work. They’re not. But how your writing looks on the page has always been important and, in the era of on-screen reading, it matters much more than it did previously.
There are, of course, both state and local rules that documents preparers need to follow. These are prescriptive, especially in relation to margin sizes, minimum font sizes, and font styles, and require compliance. However, the courts do allow some flexibility, and taking advantage of the possibilities may help you achieve greater filing acceptance rates.
We’ve boiled down a variety of recommendations to five best practices:
#1. Choose a font that is friendly to on-screen and off-screen reading
The courts require a font that is “essentially equivalent to Courier, Times New Roman, or Arial.” Most will opt for Times New Roman – to their detriment. Times New Roman is a newspaper font, intended to squeeze text into narrow columns. It doesn’t work well on a full page. Instead, choose a font such as Georgia, Constantia, or Cambria (all available for free in Microsoft Word) since these have been designed with both on- and off-screen reading in mind. To make on-screen reading a bit easier for your document recipient, use size 13, rather than the typical 12.
#2. Format your documents for on-screen reading
Robert Dubose, a Texas lawyer, argues that on-screen reading requires an adjustment to format and layout. To maintain the reader’s attention, be concise (as short as possible, while maintaining content), use left-aligned subheadings to accommodate skim-reading, and utilise “topic sentences” (very descriptive paragraph-opening sentences) to further guide the reader.
#3. Become familiar with PDF editing
As you learn more about the features available in PDFs, you may begin to rely less on paper. PDFs are searchable, and can be quickly bookmarked and tagged, contain hyperlinks, and be automatically bates-numbered in seconds. Moreover, the cost of programs like Adobe Acrobat have fallen substantially in recent years, and free training programs are available online through EFSPs like One Legal.
#4. Maintain the best possible quality for your PDFs
There’s no need to scan documents in order to create PDFs. Instead, you can convert documents directly by saving them in PDF format, which also results in a smaller file. If your document absolutely requires scanning (exhibits, for example), be sure to do so at no greater than the required minimum of 300 dpi. Any higher quality won’t produce a better image but will result in an unnecessarily large file. Read more PDF tips and tricks >>
#5. Review the details in your document before clicking “submit”
For physical filings, document specialists could review your files before printing, collating, and binding them on your behalf. Our teams at One Legal, for example, would sometimes find small errors (for instance, a social security number that hadn’t been redacted) that we would fix before filing. With eFiling, your documents go directly to court with no built-in reviewer. To ensure your documents are accepted the first time you eFile, be sure to give your filings careful reviews before hitting “submit.”
These suggestions may seem like common sense, and easy to dismiss. However, we’ve found that, in areas that have mandated eFiling, legal professionals typically require some time to incorporate them into their practice.
Where there may have been some leeway and leniency from the courts, the computer is now in control. As a result, the best practice to ensure that your eFilings are not rejected is to refine your in-house procedures and choose an experienced eFiling service provider that can help you reduce risk.