Webcams: Legitimate Tools or Little Toys?

By Alan Pearlman, “The Electronic Lawyer” ™

We all know the pains of planning and holding off-site meetings, especially those that include clients, lawyers, paralegals, and others from across the city, the country, or even the world. Coordinating a time and location can cost a bundle, especially when combined with the travel costs associated with getting and staying there, and the wasted time that could have been spent billing.

Ultimately, it’s the client who pays, you say, so why worry? We’re all learning why more and more each day. Times have changed. Many clients just don’t have big budgets anymore. If we want to keep the clients we have and obtain new ones, paying close attention to their budgets is a good way to do it. Clients don’t have time to be out of their offices for days meeting with legal counsel or collaborating on complicated documents (that process can take weeks: writing, faxing, or e-mailing back and forth, coordinating edits, resending, and so on). Moreover, your clients don’t have a burning desire to pay for your travel time and expenses, either. Travel takes you out of the office and makes you less efficient. If it’s not absolutely necessary, try to avoid it by using an alternative means of communication.

Enter the webcam! For several years now many people on the Internet have been using a small device to communicate with their families, friends, and lovers while away from home on business, or just talking and chatting to others around the globe. The webcam provides the ability to see the person you are talking to on the screen while you are talking to them. Not that long ago, such a concept seemed very futuristic—a telephone with a T.V. screen so you can see who you’re talking too! Well, the future is here now, and the quality has increased to the point that it works for personal as well as business uses. If you’re not webcamming for business, you certainly should consider its benefits.

In the immediate post-911world, people felt unsure about travel. During the months following the destruction of the World Trade Center, many people simply chose not to fly. As a result, they cancelled business trips. In order to continue doing business, the meetings associated with the cancelled travel took place by phone, more and more frequently augmented by videoconferencing facilities. As the cost of videoconferencing dropped, more and more business professionals turned to videoconferencing as a replacement for face-to-face meetings. Today you can use a computer and a simple webcam to set up one-to-one videoconferences at virtually no cost beyond that of the computer and the webcam.

An attorney, for example, can convene a meeting, whether planned or on the spur of the moment, with colleagues or clients anywhere in the world, as long as they have a PC, an Internet connection (high speed strongly recommended because it provides higher quality video), a webcam, and a headset. It’s very easy, and much more interactive and considerably less costly than traditional audio- or videoconferences.

For legal professionals, the webcam experience permits users to work together in real-time over the Internet using live audio and video capabilities, instant messaging and text chat, and the ability to jointly create, review, share, and edit Microsoft® Word and PowerPoint presentations. When I am videoconferencing, I use a Creative Labs webcam. As a matter of fact, I have two of them. One is the smaller notebook version that I use when I absolutely have to be out of the office. The other is the Creative Labs NX Ultra webcam, which comes complete with a microphone headpiece for audio. I use that as my stationary office cam. I like these two webcams, and they offer excellent resolution and design for the money. They also sport features like the ability to follow your movements as you move around during any conferences.

There are several good programs that are free or come with your operating systems. For example, if you have MS Messenger, you have the ability to conduct an online meeting and invite several colleagues from all over the globe to join in to review and revise legal documents. You also have the capacity for all of them to whiteboard, in effect, right online, which lets you capture any type of document to share in your e-meeting, including pictures or websites. Using a whiteboard allows participants (if the host enables it) to draw freehand and defined shapes, add text, point to different features on the document, change line colors or just about anything they need to do, and everyone can see the additions as they are being made. Cool! You can create as many pages as you want with the same background, marking each one as “confidential” or as a “work in progress.”

Also extremely helpful for attorneys is the ability to present a final PowerPoint presentation to a designated group. The meeting presenter or presenters specified by the host make the presentation. The host controls who may attend the presentation, and viola—you can now display your presentation to an audience in remote locations without the cost of buying or renting a projector!

To take advantage of this technology, ask yourself how can you use it in your law practice. There are almost too many legal applications to count. I can see attorneys using webcams for emergency situations, where you just don’t have time to get to your client’s office to help them out. Sure, a teleconference can work in this situation, but you can’t jointly create and edit an emergency press release with a group of people as efficiently on the phone. You can use it to prep an expert witness who might be based in Italy, for example, again cutting back on expenses to the client and wasted travel time for the witness.

Client status meetings can also take place with your webcam. After all, if I can’t be with a client, it’s better for our relationship to at least be able to see each other’s faces. Such a meeting also allows us to quickly pull up documents to work on together, which might not be possible if I’d traveled across the city and forgotten the contract. The same logic applies for bigger law firms with multiple offices across the country or corporate counsel who need to deal with multiple attorneys. With a decent webcam, such as the Creative Labs NX Ultra webcam, we can all be in one virtual meeting room without ever having to leave our offices. Our big decisions can be reached, or documents approved, in a fraction of the time it would have taken if we’d had to travel.

Many courts already allow telephone appearances in law and motion proceedings and other matters. I can foresee that in the not-too-distant future, we will have the ability to appear by videoconference through the use of webcams, so that when we appear from a remote location, we really appear.

In summary, using a good webcam and mic has proven to me that online meetings can actually be tremendously beneficial for legal professionals such as myself. Not only is the quality of audio and video better than the competition (or much less expensive than stand-alone videoconferencing suites), but the ease-of-use and functionality of the real-time document creation and editing features also should win over even technophobes. All these features are an attractive alternative to those face-to-face meetings that we just don’t need anymore. I can see it now: U.S. airlines continue to struggle because some of their most frequent fliers—attorneys—are turning in their wings. Sorry, airlines! Webcams and microphones have come of age as legitimate tools of the legal profession. They cost much less than a plane ticket and take up much less time, thereby making us more efficient.


Alan Pearlman, the “Electronic Lawyer,” practices family and criminal law in Illinois. He also serves as a technology consultant and a frequent author of articles on technology and the law. His e-mail address is Pearlman@theelectroniclawyer.com .

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