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Trial lawyers are not known for being couch potatoes. Most of them like to move around the courtroom, and some even like to grandstand. But there is a way for trial lawyers to argue a motion and sit at their desks: videoconferencing. On Oct. 4, the Nassau County Supreme Court, a New York state trial court on Long Island, announced that it would let lawyers conduct their calendar calls by videoconference. The order grew out of the delays and disruptions that have been introduced into life in the New York metropolitan area after the World Trade Center hijack attack on Sept. 11. Bridge and tunnel checkpoints are slowing traffic into the city and snarling it outside. Many people have a hard time traveling in and out of New York City. Nassau County Supreme Court administrative judge Edward McCabe says he extended the offer to telecommute to alleviate these troubles. “We thought, perhaps, we can help [the lawyers] and have them appear without having them come to the courthouse,” McCabe says. So much for good intentions. No one had taken the court up on its offer as of press time. But don’t give up on videoconferencing just yet. Earlier this year, the Nassau County Supreme Court launched a pilot project to set up some routine court calls by videoconferencing. “The new millennium will be a courtroom with TV cameras and screens,” McCabe says. Six lawyers for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. participated in the initial videoconferencing experiment. They “appeared” in more than 100 calls in about four months, says James Nunemaker Jr., managing attorney in the Uniondale, N.Y., office of State Farm. Most of the cases were auto-related personal injury insurance claim cases. The main advantage of videoconferencing, Nunemaker says, is that it saves time. Attorneys typically spend an hour or two waiting for their case to get called, he explains, only for the judge to adjourn or delay it. In the pilot, the presiding judge set up a specific time for videoconferencing calls, so lawyers did not have to sit around waiting by video. Videoconferencing calls, unlike in the flesh calls, were punctual. “The majority of these [calls] were requests for adjournment,” Nunemaker says. In a few cases, the subject of the videoconferencing moved from the mundane to the substantive, including settlement discussions. Nunemaker says State Farm is not necessarily going to experiment again with videoconferencing in Nassau County anytime soon. The State Farm office is just four miles from the courthouse. But the insurer would consider videoconferencing with other courts where the company does not have offices nearby, Nunemaker says. There are some hitches. Videoconferencing may be convenient, but cross-examining a witness from 3,000 miles away on a video monitor isn’t what most lawyers dream of in law school. Even though the herky-jerky movements have been smoothed out in the latest generation of equipment, it’s still a second-hand experience. Both the courtroom and the lawyer’s office need to have the proper equipment. And the videoconferencing companies frequently charge a hook-up fee for each use. The expense may explain why the calendar call experiment hasn’t taken off. The Nassau County courthouse is wired for videoconferencing. (This set-up was done at the court’s expense.) Only two rooms have been used for videoconferencing so far. Lawyers must pay about $150 to Expedite Video Conferencing Services Inc. for each Nassau County appearance. Part of the proceeds from calendar calls by videoconferencing — if there eventually are any — will go to the disaster relief effort. Lawyers who connect with the Nassau County court do not need to have Expedite technology in their own offices. Videoconferencing equipment is like telephone equipment. Different brands work just fine with each other. “As long as the videoconferencing technology meets the standards… people can talk anywhere in the world,” says Larry Roher, president of Expedite. Videoconferencing has been used to sentence convicted criminals. It has also been used to examine expert witnesses during trials. (Nassau County also allows this.) McCabe thinks it’s time for trial lawyers to move into this century. “Lawyers generally like to do things the old way,” admits McCabe. Roher, the president of Expedite, says he recently received a request from someone to set up a videoconference for a family wedding. The bride’s grandmother is far away and can’t travel, but wants to join in the ceremony. So the family is looking to wire the church. And it’s so easy your grandmother can do it.

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