LGC Uses Pictures To Tell A Story

May 7, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS—Rock icon Rod Stewart isn’t the only one who knows that every picture tells a story. The dozen folks that make up Legal Graphic Communicators are well aware of that fact, too, and have been since 1986.

Legal Graphic Communicators, or LGC for short, uses pictures to convey the murky details of a courtroom story. These pictures, often presented in the form of 3-D animation, can simplify the complicated, make the abstract seem tangible and capture what the camera can’t – such as concise explanations of expert opinions, technical data and historical facts.

Because of that ability, corporate and trial attorneys have come to rely on LGC to help them present -- and win -- their cases.

Even though 95 percent of LGC’s clients are scattered all over the country, local law firms have used their services. Buchanan, Silver & Beckering; Dickinson Wright; Gruel, Mills, Nims & Pylman; Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey; Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett; and Warner, Norcross & Judd have all been clients.

At the corporate level, Dow Chemical, Duke University, General Motors, the Hyatt Corp., 3M and Steelcase Inc. have been past clients.

But whether the firm’s clients are local or national, law firms or businesses, they all have one thing in common – they want LGC to tell their story in pictures.

“That’s it. They want us to provide them with research-based, visual communication tools,” said Bob Featherly, LGC president and exhibit consultant. “We’re really a visual consultant. Probably a third of our gross income is for consulting, not just production.”

In fact, LGC becomes a working member of the litigation team. The firm provides on-site management of the exhibits, and testimony to the admissibility of the evidence.

“Our product is of no use to our clients if it does not get admitted for use in court. One of the concerns for people who are using our type of tools for the first time, is whether or not the opposition is going to object,” said Featherly.

“Our reaction to that is, we certainly hope so. The bigger threat we are to the opposition, the better the tool we have for the client. Every facet of our tools has to be backed up by data, and data that can be offered by the testifying expert.”

But on the graphics side, LGC does offer an array of products. The firm can design a case’s evidence using either computer animations, reconstructions and simulations, and live-action video and photos that can be merged with animations. Then LGC can show these tools in a number of formats, such as LaserDisc, CD-ROM and DVD with bar code access.

One of LGC’s best tools was featured on the CBS-TV newsmagazine 60 Minutes II. The story was so compelling that the show’s producers repeated it twice.

In 1991, a 16-year-old male suffered significant and paralyzing injuries when his head struck the bottom of a pool after a dive. The family sued the diving board manufacturer and the pool designer, and won an $11 million decision largely due to the graphic evidence LGC presented.

LGC found that the pool, when combined with the particular diving board, consistently led divers into the transition wall. The company then suspended a computer-generated image of the pool onto video footage of test dives performed in an Olympic-sized pool. LGC did this to show that the pool in question wasn’t safe for normal dive paths, and divers faced the risk of serious injury every time they tried an aggressive dive.

“We had to recreate the situations that were breaking the necks and spines of these young boys who were diving into these pools,” said Featherly. “We actually had to have a scuba diver hold a PVC grid under water that had 1-foot by 3-foot rectangles in it because shooting through the water distorts the image.

“We had to be able to understand, for sure, what the horizontal and vertical distances were. Then we super-imposed the electronic grid, based on that, over the pool. Then we just super-imposed all the different bottom designs that had been approved by this national certification organization.”

The problem with the pool design? Featherly said the evidence showed that the transition wall, from the deep to the shallow end, was too close to the diving board. The design was two decades old when LGC did its investigation, which meant it didn’t allow for a bigger diver who dives deeper.

“In the past 20 years, it’s remarkable how much taller and stronger and in better shape today’s teenagers are than they were back then,” said Featherly.

The story of how LGC emerged in this field is almost as interesting as the ones it tells.

LGC’s parent firm was founded in 1979. Known as Graphic Express or the GXI Corp., it was a computer graphics firm that mainly produced transparencies and stills for corporate meetings and training programs. In 1985, GXI hired Featherly to start an animation division to capture a share of the TV production market. But shortly after he started, the firm found a new market for its animation products.

“I don’t think we had it over six months before attorneys started coming in and saying can you help us tell this difficult, convoluted or foreign story to a bunch of lay jurors,” he said.

The following year LGC was born. It wasn’t too long after that, that the entire company turned its attention towards trial consulting and courtroom graphic communications.

“That’s been a very good thing,” said Featherly of the change. “Story-telling is what we were about -- and, to this day, are about. Every case became a story to tell, and it just became the ideal business for us.”

Since then, advances in technology have effected LGC’s products. Not only improving the quality of the products made, but also lowering the expense of producing the graphics. Fifteen years ago, LGC spent $200,000 for its first graphics computer. Its second machine cost even more a few years later.

“But today, you can purchase a top-quality system for an animation suite, everything you need, for about $30,000, or less,” he said.

These technological changes have allowed LGC to concentrate more on its people than its systems. No longer does Featherly have to plan a year out on how to finance the newest graphic equipment and then have most of the firm’s cash tied up in systems.

LGC has a dozen people stationed at its three offices. Besides the Grand Rapids location at 2660 Horizon Drive SE, the firm is also in Minneapolis and Tacoma. LGC has about a half-dozen competitors for its nationwide business, a niche the company is happy to be in.

“We have an awful good time,” said Featherly. “We thoroughly enjoy what we do.”

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