Reams of paper were generated whenever judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit were asked to vote on a case that wasn't going to oral argument. When one party filed a motion asking for a panel of judges to hear a case, the staff drafted a vote sheet based upon that motion, asking judges a series of questions and requesting they grant or deny the motion. As many as 11 judges participated in up to 20 cases at once, and each judge needed to see the votes and comments of each of the other judges.

"The old system was so cumbersome, with all this paper going back and forth between panel members," said Steve Kaplan, systems manager for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. "Consider the work created from the manual process of doing the paperwork and having a decision typed, photocopied and sent to the other judges."

As paper piled up, the process slowed down -- evidence that a solution was needed to speed up the decision-making process, cut down the judges' workload and increase efficiency. "We wanted something that would enhance communication," said Kaplan. "We knew we needed some kind of groupware application and came across Trax Softwork's TeamTalk. In its most basic form, it's kind of like conferencing software where you can create topics, add members and post comments to that topic so other members can read them."

"TeamTalk eliminates bottlenecks created from sharing information, improves the communication process, moves everything onto the computer and reduces the need for groups of people to meet face to face at specific times to share information," said Frank Thomas Cox, vice president of marketing for Culver City, Calif.-based Trax Softworks Inc.

The idea behind TeamTalk is to "parallel the way people share information," said Cox. "In a typical office setting, a great deal of information is shared among workers in a casual way -- standing in the hallway, eating lunch, visiting in cubicles. We used this idea of communication in the creation of TeamTalk."

TeamTalk's basic features include simple and dynamic topics, threads, navigational tools such as TopicMap and ThreadMap, automatic notification, search and search viewer, WAN and remote-user support. It also includes support for non-Windows team members, information from news feeds, emoticons, customization capabilities, maintenance administration and it comes with a voting application that can be customized. "It also allows the court to write their own Microsoft Visual Basic program to record/track votes, interact with TeamTalk and store vote tallies in Microsoft Access," said Kaplan.

One feature allows the user to create a topic or subtopic without having to perform any programming. The user clicks on "new," selects the people he or she wants to participate in the discussion and a new forum is created. Topics can be read-only or created so that only selected people can make changes; write-only so that topics can act as a suggestion box; or read-and-write so that others can see comments and respond to them.

"You would do a read-only topic when you're posting something," said Cox, "like a company policy manual where you don't want something like the vacation accrued to be altered. Or you can do read-and-write when you want to do what the judges do -- read other judges' votes and comments and cast your own."

GROUP DYNAMICS

Since each group is unique, TeamTalk has to go above and beyond a simple groupware application that allows information to be shared. In the case of the U.S. Court of Appeals, it had to be tailored into a cohesive package so judges could see the other judges' votes, easily cast their own votes and make comments.

Trax maintains that the software is easily customized to meet such specialized needs.