General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Videoconferencing

Is It in Your Future?

By Carrie Herschman

From the plush carpeting to the polished tabletops, the conference room is like any other corporate meeting room, except for one noticeable difference: two 30-inch television monitors sit at the front of the conference room, and a video camera, smaller than a laptop, sits between them.

This conference room is owned by 2Confer (800/2Confer; www.2Confer.com), a firm specializing in meeting technologies, including videoconferencing. Videoconferencing is no longer only for Fortune 500 companies, claims Anna Powell, marketing director at 2Confer’s Chicago office. It’s gone mainstream.

As videoconferencing continues to penetrate courtrooms and law firms, the debate about it continues: Is this technology an expensive toy or a useful tool? Videoconferencing is made possible when a ‘smart’ video camera transmits data through telephone lines; monitors translate the information into images that can appear in conference rooms worldwide. All it takes is a phone call.

Powell dials up her San Francisco office to demonstrate. A remote connection is established and, within seconds, lost. But, in less than a minute, a second attempt is successful. Before anyone can say, "What?" Powell has adjusted the volume. One television monitor shows the Chicago office where we are; the other, a San Francisco conference room where a meeting is about to begin.

Powell controls the camera, panning around the room, zooming in on each speaker in turn. The monitor flashes the warning: Meeting Begins.

Meeting rooms equipped with videoconferencing can accommodate any reasonable number of participants. At 2Confer’s downtown Chicago office, one conference room seats up to eight people, another accommodates 25.

An Obvious Fit

The price of videoconferencing equipment in the late 1980s ($80,000 per room) has dropped drastically, to between $5,000 and $15,000, depending on the system. Consequently, videoconferencing manufacturers are banking that lawyers will be the next big market.

Powell estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of law firms in Chicago already use videoconferencing. "The major driving factor for accepting the use of the technology is that it is standardized—it is like one phone talking to another," explains Craig Bass, president and CEO of Critical Communications, based in Rhode Island. Powell takes it one step further: "The biggest driving factor for the law firms is that their clients are demanding it," she says.

James Carbine, a solo practitioner specializing in business litigation in Baltimore, calls videoconferencing "the wave of the future. We practiced a deposition using videoconferencing technology. The phone lines we used weren’t good enough," Carbine says. "You could see the person, but his movements were a half-second behind." Still, Carbine liked what he saw and reports that in comparison, "a telephone deposition is like asking questions to someone behind a curtain."

By Way of the Internet

For those not ready to spend thousands on the latest technology, videoconferencing via the Internet offers a cheaper alternative. That service runs between $30 and $40 per hour.

LegalSpan, a Phoenix-based subsidiary of inData Corporation, has offered videoconferencing via the Internet for a year. John Davis, vice president for Internet business development, explains why: "The technology has gotten better in terms of our ability to transmit video over the Internet." He reports that the majority of lawyers use LegalSpan for depositions, although trial presentations that enable consulting lawyers to be virtually present in court are increasing. That is, a lawyer can watch what is happening in the courtroom from the office.

Cheaper than Travel

"Videoconferencing [in the legal industry] is driven by larger law firms, where a partner would like to know what is going on in a deposition across the country," Davis says. Traveling is often not cost- effective for depositions; videoconferencing, he proposes, is the better alternative.

Steve Batoff, a solo practitioner specializing in corporate law in Baltimore, found videoconferencing to be the best option for his client. "I used videoconferencing two years ago, when I was representing a Baltimore company that is owned by a German parent," Batoff says. "They needed to discuss operations for the upcoming fiscal year with the German parent. At first they were going to fly people from Germany—at least five people, maybe six. The feeling was the conference would take two to two and a half weeks. My client was concerned with the cost."

Videoconferencing saved thousands of dollars in the cost of airfare, hotels, and meals. Besides that, Batoff says, videoconferencing saved time. There was no jet lag, and despite the six hour time difference, the meeting "worked out great": The lunch break for the Baltimore-based group was the dinner break for the Germany-based parent company.

Best of all, says Batoff, "People were with their families at night. Videoconferencing wasn’t just cost-effective. The productivity was better because people went home to their families."

Edward T. Stein, a solo practitioner specializing in plaintiff civil rights litigation in Chicago, has never used videoconferencing. "But," he says, "I’m intrigued by it." Stein thinks that videoconferencing could be most useful for him in depositions. "I’ve done them by phone and never even seen the person," he points out. Still, Stein believes the cost of the equipment is "prohibitively expensive."

Wave of the Future

Love it or hate it, the technology is legitimate, even in court. On December 1, 1996, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 43(a) was amended to allow remote testimony in civil cases "for good cause shown in compelling circumstances and upon appropriate safeguards."

"The next 30 years is the period of video. We’re going to do a lot more by video than we ever did before, and than we ever thought we would," predicts Fredric Lederer, professor of law at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. "Everything is cheaper. Everybody else has it. You’re beginning to look backward if you don’t," notes Lederer, director of the Courtroom 21 Project, one of the most high-tech courtrooms in the country.

Americans are not the only ones using videoconferencing: Australia has used television-based testimony for more than nine years. Remote arraignments or two-way first appearances are becoming more popular in the United States. The most widespread use of video testimony in the United States remains that of child witnesses in molestation cases, according to Lederer, but remote arraignments and two-way first appearances are becoming more popular.

In addition, videoconferencing can save litigants money. The Courtroom 21 Project has conducted tests using remote witness appearances with expert witnesses in civil suits, tracking juries’ responses. The verdict: "There is virtually no difference" in damages awarded, Lederer reports, and litigants save on travel and lost income costs.

Not Face to Face

Videoconferencing is not the same as a face-to-face meeting. It is, after all, two-dimensional. "You can’t see if someone is sweating," points out April Artegian, administrator and court records manager of the Courtroom 21 Project.

But distance may not be bad. "[Using] videoconferencing from six feet away, you don’t lose anything," notes Lederer. "Harassing a witness by leaning in six inches away [from the witness] is inappropriate conduct. The use of videoconferencing may add civility and propriety to the process," he says.

Law students at the College of William and Mary use the Courtroom 21 facilities to interview with possible employers through videoconferencing. "It really changes the way you do business," says Powell. "It’s a huge shift in how we are typically acclimated in dealing with people."

Of course, dealing with people usually requires some rules, and proper video etiquette is no exception. One of the most important guidelines is to test the system in advance of the meeting. Another rule: Don’t speak unless it is your turn. If more than one person speaks at location A at a time, raising the volume level at location B just won’t help. And watch what you say: "When you walk out of the room, they are probably going to hear you if you say, ‘Boy, his tie was really garish!’" Lederer warns.

Videoconferencing technology is blurring the line between doing business face-to-face and talking over the phone, but there’s no virtual handshake—yet. n

Carrie Herschmanis a freelance writer in Chicago.

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