Look: I like toys. I work in a paperless law office. My enthusiasm for PDFs has rocketed to near-Svenson levels. I am a huge fan of tablets, and I probably do as much screen reading as any lawyer you’ll meet.
Even so, I’m a little concerned about a pair of orders that the Supreme Court of Virginia handed down on April 10.
One order establishes new Rule 5:13A, which will let the trial court prepare and transmit an electronic record, rather than a paper record, when a party notes an appeal. Perfectly reasonable.
The other order amends Rules 5:26 and 5:32 to save trees. Right now, the parties have to file one electronic copy and 15 paper copies of their briefs. The appellant also has to file either 15 paper copies or 10 electronic copies and 10 paper copies of the appendix. (Why ten PDFs instead of one? And can there be 10 PDFs instead of one, if there is only one appendix? Truly, these are questions for the philosophers.) The parties need to serve their opponents with three paper copies of their briefs, and the appellant must serve the appellee with two paper copies (and possibly an electronic copy) of the appendix.
Effective July 1, the parties will file one electronic copy and 10 paper copies of their briefs, and they will serve only electronic copies. The appellant will file three paper copies and one electronic copy of the appendix, and it will serve only an electronic copy.
Typgraphy aside, these changes signal a move toward reading briefs and appendices on the screen. That’s good for a lot of reasons; searchability, portability, and efficiency spring to mind. On balance, it is almost certainly the right move. But it’s not an exclusively positive development.
That’s because screen readers handle text differently than paper readers, as Robert Dubose explains. In general, paper readers study text, while screen readers skim it. Paper readers generally read from left to right, reading every word. Screen readers scan in an F-shaped pattern, scanning for visual cues like headings and bullet points, and they do not read every word. Paper readers generally enjoy better reading comprehension than screen readers. Screen readers generally face more distractions than paper readers. It’s generally easier to navigate a document in paper, although PDF does have the advantage of a word-search function.
As Greg May points out, facts like this mean that a shift toward reading briefs on the screen may not be a super-great development for the lawyers writing those briefs. As I writer, I’d prefer that my readers process every word; I’ve usually put them there for a reason, purple monkey dishwasher. As an advocate, I’m certainly in favor of reading comprehension. It helps to get my point across. And as a citizen, I’d prefer that the justices read briefs in a medium that encourages quiet contemplation, as opposed to one that seems designed to maximize distraction.
That said, there are certainly strategies you can employ to maximize the effectiveness of your writing for screen writers. And iPads are fun and portable and they blur the line between work and play. If electronic filing will trick a justice into spending time with my brief that he or she would otherwise devote to real life, who am I to complain?