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December 2011

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Online Chat Improves Service to Public


Peruse the website of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona and you will find all kinds of information for filers, from bankruptcy forms and publications, to instructions on how to file. As the on-line welcome notes, the court is committed to providing "the greatest level of public service, access and information."

That access also comes with a question— and an invitation—on its webpage: "Have a Question? Chat with Us Live!"

The Arizona Bankruptcy Court was the first bankruptcy court in the nation to offer information seekers the option of an on-line chat.

"The court started live chat several years ago, as a result of a strategic plan initiative to better inform and educate the public," said Arizona Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Brian D. Karth.

On-Line Chat Improves Service to Public

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Mexico was the second bankruptcy court nationwide to offer visitors the option of an on-line chat. Two years ago, Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Norman Meyer, with some of his staff, attended a planning seminar at which they identified enhanced service to the public, particularly for pro se filers, as a court goal. The on-line chat was one in a range of things to accomplish.

Meyer was familiar with live chat options, as most Internet users are who have purchased from on-line retailers, or perhaps made an on-line appointment. He'd also seen the Arizona bankruptcy court's chat on-line option.

"You see them on retail websites all the time," said Meyer. "I thought, 'Why don't we do that?

Rather than voice messages, users send and receive text messages. It's convenient and immediate. Users are already on-line, and texting in a chat becomes part of their site visit.

"If a paralegal is having trouble in the electronic case files system, they can click and have a chat with a representative who will answer their question," said Meyer. "You don't need someone assigned specifically to the chat live. We already have a staff member on call. A window appears on their screen notifying them of a chat request." The court's goal is to respond to a chat request within 30 seconds.

Meyer sent a team to the Arizona Bankruptcy Court to see how the chat line worked, and the team also culled information from state and county courts that used the software behind live chat. Mary A. Schott, Bankruptcy Clerk of Court for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nevada, also looked to the Arizona and New Mexico bankruptcy courts for inspiration. Schott's court will go live with an on-line chat option in mid-December.

"Our district is number one for per capita filings in the country and at the top for foreclosures," said Schott. "We have a lot of attorneys with procedural questions who've never handled a bankruptcy case before. We have a lot of pro se filers. We have so many people calling in, live chat is another way for us to handle the requests for information."

The hours the Nevada bankruptcy court's live chat is available will be posted on the website. During off hours, visitors will be unable to click on the live chat icon. That eliminates what might be a frustrating wait for a response when the service is unavailable.

"I was surprised at the number of attorneys who use our live chat to ask questions," said Karth. "This has been particularly true in the past two years as many real estate lawyers expand into the field of bankruptcy law and have questions as inexperienced practitioners. They said it was more convenient than waiting on the phone for someone to answer a question—they could work while they waited for a reply."

Last month, the Arizona bankruptcy court averaged 12 live chats per day, with a high per day of 25. The average chat lasts nearly nine minutes.

Karth also noted that many users like that a chat reply can include a direct link to the location of information on the court's website. "One advantage live chat offers is the ability to quickly cut and paste webpage links in response to questions, rather than talk a caller through various bankruptcy issues over the phone," he said. Live chat visitors also can refer back to the written response and avoid call backs.

According to Meyer, the New Mexico bankruptcy chat line is in fairly regular use. Law offices ask about filings. Pro se filers get help on bankruptcy chapters and filing. At the end of the conversation, a transcript of the chat is retained and the system keeps a log of the chats. "We can go back and check information," said Meyer. The application itself is inexpensive, costing $75 per month for use by three operators.

More bankruptcy courts are considering adding live chat to their websites. "We're looking at how it potentially could improve our customer service," said Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Ken Gardner in the Northern District of Illinois. And in a recently conducted survey of attorneys in the Central District of California, the bankruptcy court found that 73 percent of the respondents wanted an on-line chat feature for Case Management/Electronic Case Files system assistance.

"Live chat is a nice tool," said Meyer. "While it's not the answer to every question, it does help us serve the public, especially a generation that is used to digital and mobile applications. It's one way we can increase service to the public."