Courtroom Technology

By Fredric I. Lederer, Tom O'Connor, and Timothy A. Piganelli

Increasingly, administrative, civil, and even criminal cases are being presented with technology. Technology-based evidence presentation is substantially faster than traditional methods, and many agree that it also does a better job of presenting information. Technology permits courtroom options not otherwise possible. For example, videoconferencing allows remote witness testimony as well as remote foreign language and American Sign Language interpretation. Some judges, especially those who preside in high-technology courtrooms, may even require technology for certain tasks.

Solos and small firm lawyers sometimes dismiss the use of case presentation technology, reasoning that they lack adequate resources to use it, but this assumption is erroneous. True, equipment rental is expensive, but the most basic form of courtroom presentation technology—a document camera and a projector—can be purchased for less than $3,000, a cost that can be amortized over many different cases and clients. Adding a laptop computer to the system gives counsel even greater opportunities. Relatively inexpensive programs such as PowerPoint ( www.microsoft.com), Presentations ( www.corel.com), Acrobat ( www.adobe.com), even Word and WordPerfect all can be used for case presentations, and a dedicated software solution such as TrialDirector ( www.indatacorp.com), Sanction ( www.sanction.com), or CaseMap ( www.casemap.com) gives even greater options. Furthermore, an increasing number of courts are themselves providing much of the technology you will need (see the sidebar “Brave New Courtroom” on page 46).

So, is it time to introduce more technology into your next case presentation? Here are some questions to consider:

•       Does some part of your case require or benefit from the use of technology?

•       Is your opponent likely to use technology?

•       Is your courtroom or hearing room technologically equipped, and if not, do you have affordable access to the necessary technology?

•       Do you and your staff have the necessary training, skill, and software
to prepare, support, and present a high-technology case? If not, can you get that training?

Note that to decide whether your case would benefit from technology, you need to know what you can do with it and the effects of such use. If all of this is new, consider attending a legal technology training program, such as William and Mary Law School’s Center for Legal and Court Technology, which offers a two-day certification program (one of the authors is director of this program).

Checklist for Automating a Case for Trial

If you have decided to take the plunge, below are the steps you should take to ensure that the process goes smoothly.

Appoint a project leader or coordinator. This person should be someone who is extremely familiar with the technology. (Obviously, if you are a solo, that person is you.) The project leader serves as the “point of contact” for any consultant or vendor being used to assist in the trial’s automated presentation. The leader should possess a good measure of technical competency as well as sensitivity to communication and deadlines—much of the work in automating a case comes down to planning and scheduling.

The project leader should oversee the automation of the case, including, but not limited to: (1) picking any necessary scanning vendor, (2) setting up training schedule, (3) coordinating with trial technology consultants and equipment vendors, and (4) coordinating with court staff. But don’t spread the project leader too thin if he or she has any other (non-technological) duties as part of the trial team.

Make the decision to digitize the case-related evidence. This decision is better made early in the litigation but can be employed at any stage of the case development. Once this decision is made, select a comprehensive and compatible case management system in which to organize your case.

Select the litigation support software. This decision should also be done early in the process. Computerized litigation management systems can incorporate databases, transcripts/text search and retrieval, image management, outliners, and the ability to develop a case timeline. Most firms choose a litigation support software or trial presentation software on a firm-wide basis.

Train your team. Training must take place twice: first, during the discovery phase and again, later, for trial. You can never start the initial training too early, and many firms start training the litigation team and staff immediately after the litigation support software has been selected. Training early in the project will give team members a comfort level that will allow them to use the benefits of the technology without losing their focus on case-related legal work. It also gives the team a chance to ask questions and have follow-up sessions in solving specific problems.

If the court doesn’t automatically require its approval, ask the court to approve the use of technology. In some instances simply notifying the court of your desire to use technology is sufficient. On rare occasions you may have to file a motion or submit a brief as to why and how you plan to use the technology. In these instances the court may not have the experience of trying a case where the major method of presentation is done this way, and you may need to “educate” the court on your intent and the process you plan to use.

Typically this topic is discussed at the pretrial conference, which may still give you time to resolve any objections or problems that may arise. In some instances you also may want to investigate whether your adversaries plan on using technology in the courtroom. You may come to an agreement as to whether you need equipment not already in the courtroom, and if so, whether you can share the cost. Of course, the decision to notify your adversary about your intent to use technology might involve a little strategy. Just use common sense.

Establish a contact with the court. It is always important to establish a contact person on the judge’s staff. If the court doesn’t have a courtroom technologist, this person is usually the court clerk, the bailiff, or the judges’ secretary. This court staff member should be someone you can coordinate with for entrance to the courtroom before the trial starts. This contact will be a valuable source of information regarding what you can do in the courtroom and what is not allowed, what type of equipment you can bring into a specific courtroom, where the judge does not allow monitors, etc. In the best-case scenario, you will need at least one day to wire the courtroom in advance of the trial date; however, you may not have that much time in advance. Your court contact should be able to assist you with this scheduling.

Inspect and if necessary design the courtroom. As early as possible, the trial team, often with the assistance of an experienced consultant, should inspect the actual courtroom where the trial will be held. If this isn’t already one of the many high-tech courtrooms, you may have to create your own. By making arrangements with the court contact, the trial team should arrange to spend at least one hour taking measurements and notes of the actual courtroom and sketching out the room and its permanent furnishings and fixtures.

Some of the more important things to look for when you inspect your courtroom are the overall size, the dimensions of furniture, the power availability, where the electrical outlets are, the arrangement of the furniture, where the jury sits, where the judge sits, and the overall spatial arrangement of the courtroom.

The trial team will need to know how the technology will fit in the courtroom. You should walk away from this visit with at least a sketch of the courtroom that will assist you when determining the size and type of hardware you plan to use.

Also, ask your court contact if you can come back for follow-up visits. Unfortunately, each courtroom is a little different. Even courtrooms in the same building and on the same floor are not identical. There is no cookbook recipe for placing hardware in a courtroom and wiring the cable to each component. Someone experienced in automating a courtroom needs to view and inspect the courtroom for each trial.

Select the additional hardware and courtroom equipment. The hardware portion of this decision is based on what equipment, if any, is in the courtroom (again, see the sidebar “Brave New Courtroom” on page 46). Don’t rely totally on the court, their staff, and their equipment for your presentation. Once you know the courtroom, you can begin to decide what additional equipment you will need to optimize your trial presentation.

Design the war room. The equipment in the war room is just as important as the equipment in the courtroom. Typically, if counsel decides to use technology in the courtroom for automated trial presentation purposes, they will want similar technology in a war room. In most cases, the war room is in the office of the law firm involved in the case. When the trial team must travel to another city or location to try a case, some additional planning becomes necessary. During the course of the trial, many changes will be made to the electronic presentation. The war room is the ideal place to test these changes. War rooms are also used for other technology applications, such as preparing a witness to view evidence on a computer monitor, receiving and sending faxes, accessing an Internet connection, and scanning documents and photographs that come in during trial.

Train for the trial phase. A final training session should be held to train the trial team on the exact trial courtroom procedures and the use of the presentation system. Attorneys who will be examining witnesses should become familiar with the system or understand the procedure and protocol of asking a system operator to display a specific image or enhancement. In addition, it is useful to familiarize your witnesses with the technology so that they are not surprised in trial.

Set up and install the courtroom equipment. At this point, you should make an appointment with the court contact to set up, install, and test your equipment in the courtroom. Ideally, if you can get into the courtroom with sufficient advance time, you should go through a dry run of examining a witness and displaying exhibits on the courtroom system. Every installation is different because every courtroom is different and every equipment plan is different. Plan on delays and some equipment problems. Make sure you have a backup plan for equipment and hardware in the courtroom, such as a spare monitor and laptop.

Keep It Simple

Courtroom technology has seen astonishing advances in recent years. We know that juries prefer to make decisions based on visual evidence, and given the tools now available, you would think that most trials today would be using digital presentation of evidence.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case. The most common use of technology at trial is no more than a PowerPoint presentation in opening or closing arguments. Why? Because the real issue is people, not technology. Attorneys aren’t really sure how to best use the technology in trial, and when they reach a technological stumbling block with the other side, they often have trouble articulating the problem to a judge. If the judge is not technologically proficient, the result is simply an exclusion of the digital presentation altogether.

So perhaps the most important technology consideration is, do you understand it well enough to explain it? Overly detailed technological discussions among attorneys and judges bring to mind that great line from the movie Philadelphia , when Denzel Washington says, “explain this to me like I’m a four-year-old, okay?” Keep that in mind when trying to introduce the technology you need to present your next case. 

Brave New Courtroom

The modern litigator finds a different courtroom than that which existed ten or 15 years ago. Buzzwords such as e-courtrooms, wired courtrooms, and built-in technology are starting to be heard nationwide. Every federal courthouse now has at least one tech-ready courtroom, and many state courts are following suit. Wired courtrooms are a breath of fresh air for those of us weary from years of lugging heavy equipment into court.

The modern litigator finds a different courtroom than that which existed ten or 15 years ago. Buzzwords such as e-courtrooms, wired courtrooms, and built-in technology are starting to be heard nationwide. Every federal courthouse now has at least one tech-ready courtroom, and many state courts are following suit. Wired courtrooms are a breath of fresh air for those of us weary from years of lugging heavy equipment into court.

There also may be a cable or port on each counsel table to allow both parties to connect their laptops to the courts presentation system. Most wired courtrooms also have an audio cable that allows the use of any digital audio portions of their presentation. The system is usually run by the parties but controlled by the court, which can monitor and regulate who is “publishing” onto the display devices throughout the courtroom.

With all this technology built in to courtrooms, one must do a considerable amount of due diligence before attempting to use the system. Remember, the court staff technician is not going to be there during the entire trial. If something goes wrong with the setup, you are on your own until this technician is found.

Have one of your staff or your consultant meet with the court staff technician to thoroughly review the setup of the courtroom in order to anticipate potential problems and make necessary adjustments. You will want to find out if there are any glitches in the system before you come into court to present.

Also consider that most trial lawyers like to stand at the podium and let someone else sitting at the counsel table run the presentation from a laptop. In those instances you will probably have to arrange for different wiring options than the standard “automated podium,” and this may cause some resistance from the court staff that you will need to address well in advance.

Finally, after long experience, we continue to stress that you should stop installing individual monitors for jurors. This concept simply does not work. You don’t go to a movie theater and find a 15” flat panel monitor in front of every seat. A large screen and projector is still the best method of displaying multimedia trial presentations. You want to focus the jury in one place. And remember, bigger is better.

Fredric I. Lederer is Chancellor Professor of Law and director of the Center for Legal and Court Technology (CLCT) and the Courtroom 21 Project at the College of William and Mary’s School of Law in Williamsburg, Virginia; he may be reached at . Tom O’Connor is director of the Gulf Coast Legal Technology Center, a nonprofit organization helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast legal community one lawyer at a time. He resides down the Mississippi in New Orleans and “you ain’t been to Heaven ‘til you been down there”. He may be reached at or the nearest Mardi Gras parade. Timothy A. Piganelli is one of the world’s foremost trial technology experts and the owner of Legal Technology Consulting LLC, based in Phoenix, Arizona, through which he provides comprehensive strategic consulting services in a full line of computerized litigation support, including computerized trial presentation, courtroom technology, graphics, and animation, software training, expert witness, and accident reconstruction engineering. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2008

Back to Top

< /