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Lawsuits on the 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, courthouses across the state will begin allowing lawyers to file lawsuits and other documents over the Internet, creating a system that 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."