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Lawsuits on Net? Objection

As the joke goes, a lawyer is the only person who can write a 10,000-word document and call it a brief.

When attorneys meet to finalize a real-estate transaction, they call it "papering the deal."

While juries hand some victories to plaintiffs and others to defendants, a court proceeding is guaranteed to create a group of losers _ trees.

All of that dependence on paper, though, might come to an end. Over the next few years, Pasco's courthouse and others across the state will begin allowing lawyers to file lawsuits and other documents over the Internet.

The change, detailed in a Florida Supreme Court order that took effect Jan. 1, may allow the county to save $1-million on a warehouse it had planned to store court papers. And it will let a lawyer read a judge's ruling even if he's home at 2 a.m. in his well briefs.

A similar movement is afoot in the federal court system.

Electronic filing, according to some, is likely to cause a major shift in the way lawyers work. But support is far from unanimous. The naked truth: Lawyers like their paper.

Robert Sumner, a Dade City lawyer who has been practicing for 34 years, doesn't have a computer and isn't looking forward to getting one.

"Everyone in this office has a computer except for me," he said. "You start off being able to read and write, and that takes a written document. You're used to that all your life, and I think there's value in it. You don't just evolve it out of existence."

The reluctance doesn't surprise Sally Hadden, a professor of history and law at Florida State University.

"The old farts are right to be scared," she said. "This is the kind of paradigm shift that can threaten how lawyers do business."

It wasn't always like this. In ancient Greece, judges issued opinions by talking in court, not in writing. Lawyers who wanted to be well-grounded in legal precedent sat, listened and took notes.

Researching case law was not easy.

"You had to borrow someone else's notebook and hope that they took good notes," Hadden said.

Because of that, judges in this country began issuing their opinions in writing. Generations of lawyers learned to research them and to jot down their notes on yellow legal pads. Those notes, in turn, would lead to new cases and more case law.

"Our profession is intensely bound by memory," Hadden said. "We expect consistency from the law, and the only way to have it is a written record of what actually happened."

But because of computers, paper may go the way of Perry Mason.

For the price of a $100 piece of software, any lawyer with a computer can file electronically. The state Supreme Court, while it has approved broad standards for computerized documents, must also approve each county's filing system.

While none has been approved so far, several are in the works.

As things stand, the changes will affect even lawyers like 71-year-old Charlie Luckie, who doesn't trust the Internet. That's because the first lawyer to file documents in a case will choose whether to use paper or a computer. After that, the other side will have to follow that lead.

"In five or 10 years, electronic filing is really going to be the only feasible option, because of the cost of maintaining paper documents," Ronald M. Owen said. He is a Jacksonville lawyer who serves on the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which developed the new standards.

Those who oppose the plan say they are not convinced that computers are as reliable as paper.

For example, a lawyer submitting a million-dollar lawsuit just minutes before the statute of limitations runs out could lose the case if a computer glitch holds up the file until after the deadline.

Or opponents could say theynever received a motion because of similar problems.

"I guess I'm just a little old-fashioned," Sumner said. "But when you take something to court and file it and pay your fee, you know it's filed. I wouldn't want to take a chance on a time-sensitive document being transmitted by computer."

Luckie, who practices in Dade City, also favors paper.

"I keep my files for about 10 years, and you accumulate so much paper that it's astounding," he said. "But I would have a lot of misgivings about electronic filings. I think it could be abused."

The system would have built-in protection against those types of problems, advocates say. A lawyer sending a six-page motion over the Internet would receive an electronic acknowledgement that all six pages had been received.

"I don't see that as a problem," said Jed Pittman, Pasco's Clerk of Court. "That can be done easily."

In addition, said Pittman and others, the benefits of a computerized court system far outweigh the risks.

Once Pasco is online, Pittman said, the public will be able to access court files 24 hours a day. The clerk's system could highlight paperwork flaws that would otherwise hamstring a lawyer's case.

And the cost of the hardware to run it should be less than that of a new records-storage building.

"This is a thrilling idea for me," Pittman said. "It's a lot easier to store a disk than it is to store eight volumes of files."

Hadden said eliminating paper raises questions about how documents created in the software of the 1990s will be read 50 or 100 years from now. Young lawyers, she said, will also miss the thrill of walking into the clerk's office with a big lawsuit in their hands.

"The whole procedure that someone goes through to walk down to the courthouse and file the motion with the clerk has ritual attached to it," she said. "There's something sort of mystical about it."

Luckie, though, realizes that those days are fading fast.

"I don't have a computer on my desk," he said. "But it may come to that before too long."