bike courier services survive court's shift to e-filing?
By Jennifer Sullivan
Seattle Times, November 5, 2008
Next year, when the King County Superior Court system becomes the first
in the state to require that nearly all legal paperwork be filed
electronically, it is expected to save the county at least $200,000
annually and spare the jobs of a handful of courthouse employees.
But the move also could have a profound impact on Seattle's
bicycle-messenger companies, which rely heavily on court paperwork for
their pickups and deliveries. The owner of one legal — support-services
company predicts it could signal "the death for all (bicycle)
Starting June 1, all documents filed in Superior Court by lawyers and
law firms will have to be filed online. The only exceptions will be
documents filed by people who are acting as their own attorney, wills,
aggravated-murder cases and paperwork from other courts.
Superior Court Clerk Barbara Miner estimates this move will impact the
bulk of the nearly 8,000 documents filed daily in the courthouses in
Seattle and Kent, as well as in juvenile court. Miner said the county
has long planned to gradually switch to electronic filing, but recent
county budget troubles prompted court officials to rush the procedure
She said the clerk's office has to cut $3 million from its budget next
Kuno Hollriegel, audit program manager for King County Superior Court,
said he has taught more than 500 people — mostly lawyers and law-firm
employees — how to e-file court documents. He said that people have had
the option of filing documents electronically since 2004, but currently
only about 2 percent of courthouse customers do.
Both the state Attorney General's Office and the state Office of the
Courts say they support electronic filing. Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman
for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said it will "reduce the likelihood
of potential filings getting lost in transit.
"It is the wave of the future," Guthrie said. "The federal court system
has largely adopted electronic filing. It's convenient, less expensive
and it provides good documentation."
Wendy Ferrell, spokeswoman for the state Office of the Courts, said
that she doesn't see other counties following too soon because of the
cost of implementing technology.
She's certain that other counties, as well as other states, will be
watching how the process goes in King County before launching a similar
"King County is really on the forefront of this nationally," Ferrell
said. "It's difficult to get the technology up to date for a lot of
Four years ago, the federal court system started transitioning to
electronic filing. According to the administrative office of the U.S.
Courts system, electronic filing is used in nearly all federal
courthouses, federal district and bankruptcy courts, as well as the
federal appellate courts.
"It's a very efficient way to handle things. It provides for a cheaper
way to file cases," said Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik. "You
cut out most of the messenger services and the hassle of printing huge
amounts of paper."
Miner said the county is adding computer-storage space and improving on
its current electronic-filing technology early next year to meet the
June 1 implementation.
The move by King County has several messenger companies in Seattle
Ron Belec, who owns North West Legal Support in Seattle, said that many
bike couriers lost their jobs when the federal courts system shifted to
electronic filing. He predicts many of the remaining 100 to 150 bike
messengers will also be out of work when King County makes the
"That will be the death for all messengers," said Belec. "If they do it
like they did it in the federal system, the messenger system will just
Tom Bice, owner of Washington Legal Messengers in Seattle, said his
company will survive by delivering real-estate contracts and
correspondence between law firms and their clients.
"Part of me is skeptical they will be able to make it work. But we'll
roll with the punches. There's always other work in the legal
industry," said Bice, who employs four bike messengers.
At ABC Legal Services in Seattle, which runs the largest legal-document
bike-courier service in Seattle, the company is bracing for some
elimination of positions.
"I don't know if it's an end of an era, but our bike-messenger crew is
smaller than it used to be. It's a trend that's going to continue,"
said CEO Steve Carrigan.
Carrigan said that as more lawyers have grown comfortable with sending
documents electronically, the need for bike messengers has dipped.
While the company employs 17 legal-document bike messengers, the
revenue they generate accounts for only about 5 percent of ABC's
revenue, Carrigan said.
"It's not a profitable business. The hard part is what people charge
for a downtown pickup and delivery in downtown is $10. In L.A., people
pay $15 to $20 for the same thing," Carrigan said.
Robin Mullins, who stepped down last month as president of the state
Process Servers Association, agrees that King County's move will
decrease the number of legal-document couriers on bikes but is hopeful
that electronic filing will make the bike-messenger service more
Mullins said that King County has long been saturated with bike
messengers zipping in and out of its courthouses, their numbers keeping
the price of delivery services lower than in other cities. With fewer
messengers on bikes, companies will be able to raise their prices, he
"I don't think it will kill the bike-messenger system completely, but
it will change it, specialize it," Mullins said. "My vision is that
more people can charge (more) for services. For those who are still in
it, doing that reduced amount of work will be able to make more on an