High-Tech Courtroom Of Tomorrow…

May 2, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Picture this: Top-level executives of an investment firm have been named in a class-action lawsuit alleging that their suspicious accounting practices bilked investors out of millions of dollars while lining the pockets of the company’s highest-ranking officers. Locating the evidence necessary to prove the suit’s allegations would require sifting through millions of pages of reports and internal memos, as well as terabytes of computer files, database records and e-mails.

Yet within weeks of beginning the discovery process, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have located all the information necessary to make their case.

When the suit goes to trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys use interactive software presentations with custom illustrations, call-outs of important pieces of text, and animations that explain the complex processes that the company executives used to defraud their investors. All of these visual aids boil down sophisticated financial and legal concepts to a level that is easily grasped by members of the jury.

Twenty years ago, none of this would have been possible.

Just as technology has transformed the landscape of American life in the past century — even in the past decade — the legal profession, too, has evolved and matured to meet the needs of an increasingly tech-savvy client base.

For many law practitioners, including those in West Michigan, keeping abreast of the newest waves of technology has become less a luxury and more a necessity.

“With my practice, it’s the way of the future,” said Steven T. Buquicchio, a litigation attorney who specializes in receivership and creditors’ rights cases for the firm of Stenger & Stenger. “Judges and juries are expecting more, and you need to cater to that.”

Buquicchio, who is chair of the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s litigation section, has recently tried to make himself an expert in the latest legal technologies. In addition to improving his own practice, he hopes to educate his fellow lawyers on the latest trends. Those helpful gadgets and pieces of software break down roughly into two categories: those items that help an attorney build a case and those that help present evidence in court.

Among the technologies that fall into the pre-trial category, the most important are those that allow lawyers to organize, sort and search millions of documents in a short time frame. In Buquicchio’s receivership cases, the paper trail can amount to tens of millions of pages. Locating a piece of evidence in such a flood of documentation can be “literally looking for the needle in the haystack.” His firm’s document management software, however, has proven to be quite the needle-finder.

Buquicchio admits that the efficiency such a system provides comes at a price. The very bottom end of similar document management programs would run a firm around $5,000. To add advanced capabilities such as high-quality scanners and optical character recognition software could mean an outlay of tens of thousands. “It’s truly an investment,” he said, “but one that’s a good investment when compared with the alternative.” That alternative could be losing out on big cases or, perhaps worse, missing a critical piece of evidence during a manual search. “It pays for itself,” he said.

One alternative to investing in an in-house document management system is farming the work out to a firm in the burgeoning field of litigation support. Grand Rapids-based Compulit is one of the leaders in the industry. The company, which serves almost two-thirds of the top 100 law firms in the country, was recently bought by information management giant Pitney Bowes after 25 years in the legal-support business. Compulit provides document management services including electronic discovery, coding for search criteria, and on-line repositories that allow multiple parties involved in a suit to access important documents via the Internet.

Compulit founder E. Jane Warnshuis argues that choosing to process these tasks “in-house” is a mistake. “From my perspective, there are few advantages of having in-house litigation support service departments in the law firm,” Warnshuis said. “It is far too costly to the client having paralegals and associates coding documents.”

She also points out that few firms have a steady enough flow of lawsuits to keep these support crews busy, which can result in inefficiency and turnover. “The learning curve never goes away,” she said.

Whether in-house or outsourced, Warnshuis said that practically all firms should invest in these processes. “Certain types of law can be practiced today without elaborate document management systems, but any kind of sophisticated litigation …  requires information systems,” she said.

While all of the electronic document management systems hum along in the background, the most visible, and perhaps most important, category of modern legal technology is the suite of tools used to present evidence in the courtroom. Buquicchio found that the essential tools of the trade are three: a laptop computer, a data projector and a high-quality display screen.

Once armed with these basic “tools,” there are endless possibilities of how a lawyer might choose to spice up his or her presentation of evidence.

“Everything you do in front of a jury has to be done in a way that will maintain their interest,” said Paul Sorensen, an attorney with Grand Rapids’ largest firm, Warner Norcross & Judd. “Attention spans have shortened. You need to be quick — interesting — to get your point across.”

Quick and interesting can take many shapes. Animation is widely used to recreate accident sequences. Hearing a police officer’s account of a traffic incident is certainly less compelling than seeing a three-dimensional, multi-angle replay of the event. Multimedia presentations using software like Microsoft PowerPoint are the norm for arranging and presenting arguments and evidence in a way that is as interesting and engaging as possible. Information can be presented in multiple languages. Interactive slideshows can illustrate complex relationships between defendants and their associates. Expert witnesses can appear via teleconference.

“Quite frankly (juries) expect something more than the slide projector,” Buquicchio said. “You are at a severe disadvantage if your opposing counsel uses (courtroom technology) and you don’t.” He said that many attorneys do not take advantage of the tools readily available to them. “They may be hesitant, but in general the use of technology is going to be something that they’re going to have to gravitate to.”

Buquicchio hopes that a series of informational lectures he is planning through the Grand Rapids Bar Association’s litigation section will help. The first in the series will feature District Court Judge William G. Kelly on June 2. Kelly will explain how attorneys can take advantage of the high-tech tools provided to them in many modern courtrooms.    

In Kentwood Today

KENTWOOD — Step into Judge William G. Kelly’s realm and you will see “the courtroom of the future.” Kelly oversaw the construction in 2002 of Kentwood’s 62-B District Court facilities in the Kentwood Justice Center. The technology built into every nook and cranny of the building makes this courtroom more “Star Trek” than “Law & Order.”

The first thing a visitor to the courtroom notices is the monitors. Two large-screen monitors are recessed into nooks above the gallery. Flat-screen LCD monitors are affixed to the tables for both defense and plaintiff’s attorneys, as well as to the jury box, the witness box, the judge’s bench, and the desks of both the court recorder and the in-court clerk. The bailiff can monitor the holding cells from his desk.

The monitors’ touch-screen capabilities come into play while discussing evidence. Items are placed under a document camera, which transmits the image to all monitors. Kelly refers to the built-in annotation system as the “John Madden Telestrator,” in honor of the illustration-happy NFL commentator.

When a piece of evidence is displayed, the witness, judge and attorneys can emphasize important elements by circling, underlining and marking spots with arrows, simply by dragging a finger across the screen. When combined with the REGIS online database of aerial photography, the system makes for excellent ad-hoc re-creation of traffic accidents. “Even attorneys who hate computers find the document camera and Telestrator easy to use and beneficial,” Kelly said.

The sound system is equally impressive. Microphones abound throughout the room. Every word is captured and recorded. The judge controls, via touch-screen, the complete audio-video suite. Need an interpreter for a defendant who speaks Farsi or Serbo-Croatian? Kelly simply dials up a California-based translation service. Within minutes, an interpreter can be heard from the overhead speakers.

The technology is not simply whiz-bang, flashy gadgetry; it actually improves the efficiency of the court. Kelly said people typically understand and retain about 10 percent of what they read and 20 percent of what they hear. However, when using the multimedia approach to combine reading and hearing, retention jumps to 50 percent. So Kelly practices what he preaches.

When it comes time to issue judgments and sentences, Kelly uses the monitors to explain the provisions to the defendant. The sentence is immediately entered by the clerk and a printed copy is provided to the defendant. The same is true of monetary penalties and fees. The clerk prints out an invoice and amortization schedule for repayment if necessary.

Kelly uses a carpentry analogy to describe the use of technology in the courtroom. For him, the traditional reliance on oratorical skills is equivalent to the use of hand tools. “Can you build a house with a hammer and nails and a screwdriver? Sure,” he said. “But it can be done quicker and more efficiently with power tools. The attorney who doesn’t use technology has a screwdriver; the (attorney who does) has an electric drill,” he said. “The attorney who is familiar with these tools has an advantage.”

And judging by the smile on Kelly’s face as he shows off his high-tech courtroom, the judge who has these tools enjoys his job. 

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