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Investor's Business Daily
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Article Title: "Court Technology Making A Persuasive Case "
Section: Internet & Technology 

Date: 8/23/2004 
The slow-moving, tradition-bound judicial system is gradually gathering technological steam.

It's making a number of changes to the courtroom status quo, including electronic filings of legal motions, witness videoconferencing and digital displays of attorneys' arguments.

In most cases, the technology helps smooth the legal process, experts say. But there is a downside: Fancy equipment and software can sometimes distract people from the fundamentals of a case.

"Technology has changed the way virtually all cases are heard," said Brad Gross, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., intellectual property lawyer.

There are plenty of examples of good technology in courtrooms, he says. One is real-time transcripts that allow court reporters to instantaneously transmit what they're writing to attorneys' laptops. Another is headsets that let jurors hear an English interpreter when a witness speaks a language they don't know.

But while tech can make a courtroom more efficient, it can shift the focus away from a lawyer's message. Suppose an attorney transmits a letter in evidence to a screen in front of jurors. All eyes are on the screen, not the attorney.

"You want them looking at you," Gross said. "You're on the stage."

And technology can't deliver the same psychological impact as real-life evidence.

Take a handgun in a criminal trial, says Gross, a former prosecutor. Passing it around to a jury would be much more powerful than displaying it on a screen.

"Ultimately, technology doesn't beat a sound argument," Gross said. "The use of technology to present evidence has improved, but it's also been overused by lawyers who get caught up in the gadgetry of it all."

Brooks Hilliard, a Phoenix computer consultant, knows just how much technology is changing the judicial process.

An expert witness in more than 100 computer-related cases across the country, Hilliard now spends time excavating hard drives rather than just wading through boxes of documents.

During the pretrial "discovery" portion of a case, attorneys can request - and get - far more documents, including e-mails, than they could in the past.

With "electronic discovery," judges are less likely to deny an attorney's request for more information based on how difficult and time-consuming it is to obtain, he says.

"Because of that, it's possible to produce an awful lot more documentation," Hilliard said.

That's both good and bad. It can slow the process and cost money or make important evidence harder to find. But it can also result in the discovery of "smoking guns," he said.

In any case, there's no escaping the document deluge. "Some of the documents are relevant," Hilliard said. "I don't see any way around it."

Technology is also changing a behind-the-scenes aspect of trial preparation: mock juries. They can give lawyers insight into how actual juries might respond to a case.

In the old days, mock juries were too expensive for many lawyers to afford. But in 2000, Chris Bagby set out to change that.

The personal injury lawyer in Arlington, Texas, started, which conducts two to three mock juries weekly.

His lawyer clients pay an average of $1,500 to get the take on their cases from a cyberspace pool of over 50,000 jurors nationwide.

Jurors make $5 or $10 per trial, spending an average of 45 minutes on each one. "It helps attorneys prepare for trial," said Bagby. "It's basically a dress rehearsal."

Personal injury attorneys can get valuable information from a mock jury: how much money a flesh-and-blood version might award.

And since its pool is online, eJury can use more people than real-life counterparts.

"That's what makes this empirically sound and also more attractive," Bagby said.

The legal profession increasingly trains attorneys to use technology to their advantage.

Frank Rothschild is a courtroom technology textbook author and a part-time judge in Kauai, Hawaii. He works with the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, a nonprofit group in South Bend, Ind., that teaches attorneys how to do trials.

Rothschild is a believer in courtroom technology - but with a disclaimer.

"We teach people: 'No voodoo technology,' " Rothschild said. "We're not doing flashy, Terminator-morphing stuff."

Juries don't want to feel they're being tricked, Rothschild says.

"The lawyer should still be the show and must use oral persuasion to inform the jury of the facts, and to interpret what they mean."

Although there aren't studies on the subject, Rothschild has seen big benefits from using technology. Working with federal judges in wired courtrooms, he found that 20% to 40% of courtroom time can be saved via technology.

That's the main reason for employing technology in courtrooms: saving time. "The general public would like to hear 'justice,' but it's time," Rothschild said. 


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