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The courtroom is like an obstacle course, and the best thing we can do is to anticipate the obstacles before trial. This analogy can be extended to technology in the courtroom. As courtrooms across the country improve their technological facilities, we are foolish not to take advantage of them. However, just as with everything else, the key is preparation and planning. If you plan to use technology in your case (which I strongly recommend), visit the courtroom well ahead of time (not on the day of the hearing). In Georgia, for example, many courtrooms have been updated so that you can plug your computer into their monitor system and display your presentation. Similar technology resources are unfolding across the country.
Perhaps the best use of technology
However, courthouses that have not yet made such leaps may still allow you to use technology in the courtroom. The question becomes how do you prepare? For instance, does the courthouse have a screen for projecting PowerPoint presentations? Are there television monitors to which you may connect your computer? Where are the outlets? Will you need an extension cord? These questions are not difficult, but they must be answered before you turn up in court and turn on your fancy computer to show the judge your presentation that worked so wonderfully in the office.
Technology can be as simple as using an overhead projector or as complicated as making a "day in the life" movie of a client. Perhaps the best use of technology in the courtroom is PowerPoint. Suffice it to say that if you can view something on your computer screen, you can get that same image on a screen before a judge or jury. The simplest way to learn about this process is to go to any local electronics store and talk to the manager.
Once you have mastered PowerPoint or Presentations (Corel's equivalent of PowerPoint), you will need to get that presentation up on the screen. The simplest way (but perhaps the most expensive) is to purchase your own projector and screen and bring them with you. However, a quick telephone call or visit to the courthouse might make available screens and/or television-type monitors to which you can connect your laptop. Most important, get the name and number of the technology administrator for the court. Each courthouse generally has one person designated to answer technological questions. These individuals are often quite helpful, so ask for their help.
Remember, brevity is a virtue. If we can walk into the courtroom, turn on our computers, make our presentations and sit down, the court will get a clear and concise picture, which can only help our clients. Thorough preparation prevents the potential disaster of fumbling to access great material on your computer or worse, not being able to get it on screen for the court.
Any frustration you cause the court will not help your case and certainly will not help your client feel good about your representation. Therefore, to make our points clearly, concisely, and effectively, practice makes perfect, even when it comes to technology,
When shopping for a laptop or notebook computer, consider purchasing the absolute thinnest and lightest one available. Why? Because every pound lighter your laptop is increases the likelihood that on your way out of the office you will say, "What that heck, I'll take it just in case." A seven or eight pound notebook computer will make you hesitate and wonder whether schlepping it around is really worth the trouble. However, if you purchase the latest Sony Vaio at only 1.8 pounds, the balancing act tends to shift in favor of "what the heck, I'll bring it along."
It also doesn't hurt to have your firm's logo scroll across the monitor as a screen saver on every firm computer. This looks organized and professional. Look closely at the screen savers being used in your office, a fish with bubbling noises or croaking frogs may not project the most professional image.
Appearing to have the most advanced technology and of conserving weight and space can extend to all areas of your practice. Aside from cell phones and handheld devices, the theory applies to filing systems, to copy and fax machines, printers, and to the idea of hiding storage areas in a back room or closet. Displaying and using the latest technology not only helps us prepare effectively for trial, it conveys to clients that we are innovative, organized and efficient, that our practices are state of the art and streamlined, and that we measure up to their trust in our abilities to stay current with technology issues and with changes in the law.
Many of us correspond with clients and other lawyers by e-mail. Because such contact may constitute 25 percent of a lawyer's written communications, attention to detail, grammar, and proofreading is important. Just as any letter drafted on firm stationery conveys your expertise and professionalism, your e-mail messages communicate who you are to clients and opposing counsel and increasingly account for a substantial portion of the client's bill. Take advantage of the automatic "spell check" and "grammar check" built into e-mail programs. In addition to ensuring that the content, spelling, and grammar are professional and appropriate, enhance your e-mail with an automatic "signature," which identifies you by name, firm name, address, e-mail address, telephone number, etc. Although friends may end an e-mail with "See ya, Randy," lawyers' letters should conclude with a formal "Sincerely" and complete names and addresses.
Consider using services, such as wwww.stationerycentral.com, which adapt your firm letterhead so that printed e-mail messages look as if they were sent on firm stationery. Each message looks professional and identifiable as official correspondence from your firm. It may take time to tweak the process, but as technology improves, these services will be more available, less expensive, and easier to use. The more we enhance our professional image, the better. After all, our written word is part of the professionalism we sell, and for which our clients pay dearly.
Voice-mail systems are getting more sophisticated and less expensive. One system we used until this year charged $10 a month per mailbox and allowed us to receive up to 35 messages and forward those messages with instructions to others in the office. This system also sends a copy of the voice message to your e-mail address for forwarding to clients or others.
Other systems cost more but save you a significant amount of money. They cost ten, fifteen, or twenty thousand dollars but are part of an entire telephone system that allows you to enjoy these same features without a monthly charge. They also offer a desktop phone light message indicator and allow each person in your office to have a direct telephone line (via line sharing).
Think about the benefits of a direct line for every member of your office, including secretaries. Telephone calls that come through the receptionist could go directly to each person, freeing up the receptionist to remain focused on clients coming into your offices. When a staff member is unavailable to take a call, the caller can simply leave a message in that person's mailbox. Although these systems seem expensive, they actually save you money by allowing you to do many of the things you currently use your phone system for, with fewer incoming phone lines. Thus, lowering your monthly telephone bills.
Closely connected to office voice mail is cellular phone voice mail. In our office, each of us has a cell phone with a sophisticated voice-mail system. We can arrange for our office line to be transferred, after a few rings, directly to our cell phone or voice-message system.
Although technology can assist us in our practice in all sorts of ways, ranging from word processing to billing to research to Power Point displays at trial, my favorites are the notebook computer and the hand-held PDAs (Personal Data Assistants). For me, the hand-held PDA is the most valuable tool. I have already discussed the importance of getting a lightweight notebook for use at trial. This five-ounce machine allows you to communicate with anyone in the world (by telephone or e-mail), to know exactly where you are supposed to be (with calendar function, including details of appointments, including directions on how to get there), a complete Rolodex with you at all times, pictures of loved ones, and Internet search and calculator capabilities. Although PDAs can provide many other functions, these functions alone make them a most useful technology tool. Of course, you can also use a PDA in conjunction with a camera or even a navigation system to get directions wirelessly.
On any given day, you can discuss potential deposition dates in court without calling the office to check calendars. When a court reschedules a hearing, you can immediately advise the court of your availability on that day. Or when the court appoints an expert in a case, such as a guardian ad litem or a psychologist, immediately access the person's name and number on your Rolodex and give it to your client. But perhaps the most important aspect of a PDA/cell phone is that once the Rolodex is downloaded into the telephone, screening incoming calls is easy. We need no longer fear giving clients our cell phone numbers because the ability to screen callers allows you to mentally prepare for the call or defer it to voice mail until you can return it later.
Even more important, a PDA allows you to do the one thing to ensure that technology does not leave you in a worse position than when you started: it provides backup. All of the information stored on a PDA also is installed on your computer. By pushing a button on your computer once a day, twice a day, once a week or however often you wish, all information on your computer and your PDA automatically "synchronizes," which means that both sets of information are transferred or copied to your computer and your PDA, providing mirror images of each other. Thus, your assistant may enter all appointments on your computerized calendar, and when you push the button on the PDA cradle, everything, including phone numbers, court dates, or directions to another lawyer's office,automatically is transferred to your hand-held device.
There are hundreds of varieties of PDAs. Check with the manager at your local electronics store to explain each one, but make sure that your PDA is also a cell phone. While you may love your cell phone and understand how it works and be resistant to learning a new system, the most important reason to have a combination cell phone and PDA is not readily apparent at first. Having one device ensures that you won't forget either. In other words, if you leave home without your Palm Pilot (PDA), you may not bother to go back inside to retrieve it. However, if you leave home without your cell phone, you are likely to go back and retrieve it. If they are one and the same, you will always have your PDA and be able to use it.
The wave of the future seems to be that we will all have these devices. As a final technology tip in this area, another important feature is the ability to "beam" information. In other words, with some PDAs, contact information can be beamed (by infrared transfer) to another hand-held device, eliminating the need to transfer business cards and information from the card to a computer. This function alone saves the cost of printing business cards and using secretarial time to enter the information into a computer. One day, the exception will be for business associates to exchange business cards, and the norm will be to transfer information from PDA to PDA via "infrared beaming."
We have all heard of Microsoft's PowerPoint and Corel's Presentations. They are similar and almost interchangeable. The biggest benefit of both programs is that they allow you to "show and tell" the court what you want.
We all know that we learn in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that we absorb more by seeing and hearing. PowerPoint-type programs make it simpler for the trier of fact to "see and hear" the point you are trying to make.
Before getting into the specifics of these programs, I want to emphasize their real value: organizing what will go on screen. Putting on a display has nothing to do with PowerPoint. Whatever you can see on your computer, you can project before the court. Please read that sentence again. If you have a financial affidavit on your computer in Excel or in any spreadsheet or in WordPerfect or any other program, you can connect a cord to a projector and project that image onto a screen for the court. This has absolutely nothing to do with PowerPoint or similar programs. This one concept is among the most important points in this article. Likewise, a downloaded picture or photograph can be projected onto a screen. There are no limits to using visuals to help your clients.
PowerPoint and Corel Presentations simply provide a format for organizing your thoughts into "slides." They are user friendly and allow you to—in fact, encourage you to—be selective in your word choices so that when your words appear on screen they convey the essence of your argument to the court. These programs also make it easy to transition from one slide or image to another. Although you can put any image you want on the screen, the benefit of PowerPoint or Corel Presentations is that you can put many images on the screen and can transfer them from one program to another.
If you have purchased Microsoft Office or if it came with your computer, you likely already have PowerPoint. Likewise, if you purchased Corel Office with WordPerfect, you likely have Corel Presentations on your computer. If you own either of these programs, try the self-guiding tutorials. You will be amazed at how easy they are to use.
Although the concept of wireless computing may seem difficult to comprehend, it can save you time and money as well as make you a more effective litigator. Wireless computing really covers three main areas. The first seems to be the most obvious: cell phone use and e-mail via cell phone. If you are up to the challenge of talking to a salesperson or a technology representative on the telephone, being able to use your cell phone to give you access to e-mail anywhere there is a cell-phone connection is a powerful tool. Think about your ability to receive and send messages even while sitting in a courtroom at calendar calls or in other environments where it is impossible to make a call.
Many people are confused about wireless computing and the ability to access the Internet without a cable connection between wall and computer. These two types of wireless connections are similar, but costs and speed of access differ. The first type of wireless connection is known as "Wi-Fi." This wireless connection requires a "router." In other words, if you have a network in your office, it probably is wired through the walls to your desktop computer.
Rather than have wires, you can attach what is called a "router" to the network and then transmit the connection via airwaves to a receiving antenna on your desktop or wireless computer. This is useful if you move your computer from one area to another or exchange offices with others in your firm. No need to create new holes in the office walls for your cable connection. More important, you could carry a notebook computer throughout the office and remain attached to your network, which may include access to the Internet.
This is useful for instance, if you want to go to another room for a mediation or deposition and would like to have access to the client's file on your network. If you have such a router/Wi-Fi system, you can use your notebook computer and have instant access to your network and the Internet connection that is available through your network.
Such a Wi-Fi connection also can be obtained in what are generally known as "hot spots." The advantage to Wi-Fi is that it usually is high speed, such as a DSL. The main drawback is the cost of using such "hot spots." For example, if you are using Starbucks' Wi-Fi, you will need to have either an account at T-Mobile or pay an hourly or daily charge to use the T-Mobile "hot spot." The same is true for Delta Crown rooms. However, when visiting another lawyer's office, you may access the Internet using the firm's Wi-Fi connection.
This brings to mind another drawback: if another lawyer or client brings a notebook computer to your office and you have Wi-Fi access to your network, unless you have very good safeguards, that person will have direct access to your network and your files. There are other things to consider as well. The general cost of a router is approximately $400, although cheaper ones are available, and there is no monthly usage fee to use your own router. You can use this with your notebook computer at home and not be stuck in your office, thus enabling you to spend time in the playroom with the kids or to watch a game on television with your computer in hand.
The other type of wireless (true wireless) computing is a direct connection from your laptop to a major carrier such as Sprint. Wireless cards are sold for approximately $300 to $400 and a usage charge that ranges from $35 to $95 a month, depending on how much access you want. These cards, when inserted into the side of your notebook computer, will grant you access to the Internet anywhere there is a cell phone connection on that carrier. The only drawback (aside from cost) is the dial-up speed. This is the most basic Internet connection. Although the speed is slow, it is still access to the Internet and may provide access to your office network via programs such as PC Anywhere or www.gotoMyPC.com.
These two programs provide remote access, such as via a laptop or family member's computer, to your computer at work. The advantage to this system is that you have broader access than with a Wi-Fi system because you do not need a router. The drawbacks are the cost and speed of connection.
The good news is that technology is improving. Soon a true wireless connection will be at DSL speeds and "hot spots" will be everywhere, including in the courthouse.
In addition to other valuable technology benefits, family law attorneys can improve on a key facet of a healthy law practice: the administration and collection of fees. Sending invoices by e-mail is not only a good idea, it is the only idea. Snapshot ahead five years. Not only will we be sending proposed agreements, pleadings, correspondence, and the like by e-mail, the most important document we generate, our invoices, will be transmitted via e-mail, too. However, we need not jump ahead five years: the time is now; the tools are here.
Lawyers and paralegals, just like the rest of the world, are somewhat resistant to change. Although our case management software, research tools, and voice-mail systems have all undergone drastic changes in the last few years, very few firms deliver invoices to clients electronically. It is not that the task is impossible, rather it involves a learning curve and change.
Each billing software program available to us today can be retrofitted to send bills via e-mail. Let's look briefly at the pros and cons of transitioning to electronic billing.
In addition, your client may be impressed by your ability to send invoices by e-mail, especially if his or her spouse's attorney is sending them that way. The answer is obvious. Electronic billing will happen for all of us; it is only a matter of time.
Randall M. Kessler, of the Atlanta family law firm of Kessler & Schwarz, P.C. ( www.kesslerschwarz.com), has more than 18 years' experience in domestic relations and family law matters including divorce, custody and child support. Mr. Kessler teaches trial techniques and other family law curricula at both Emory and John Marshall law schools. He is a frequent lecturer for the ABA, the National Business Institute, and various state bar associations across the country. Mr. Kessler serves on Council for the ABA Section of Family Law.
Published in Family Advocate, Volume 28, No. 3, Winter 2006. © 2006 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.