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When the friendly skies turned hostile last fall, it seemed a safe bet that lawyers would put their oversized carry-ons aside and look for travel-free ways to depose witnesses, close deals and meet with clients. One answer, it seemed, was videoconferencing. Did it take off? In a word, no. Today, most law firms are using videoconferencing internally, for firmwide departmental meetings and associate training sessions. But lawyers are still finding it too clunky to use for most meat-and-potatoes billable work, like depositions and settlement conferences. Right now, videoconferencing has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, it’s cheaper than it’s ever been. Companies like Milpitas, Calif.-based Polycom Inc. and Oslo, Norway’s Tandberg Group offer solid, do-it-yourself videoconferencing units for less than $8,000. And most firms have already outfitted their offices with enough bandwidth to run the simplest one-to-one videoconferences. (Videoconferences between more than two offices often require “bridge” vendors to provide extra bandwidth and help with the set up). Videoconferencing also saves lawyers time and money. “The most sophisticated four-hour videoconference is still cheaper than two plane flights and two hotel rooms,” says Douglas Caddell, chief information officer at Milwaukee’s Foley & Lardner. “It also cuts down on a lot of idle lawyer time.” Despite the price drop, quality is at an all-time high. The pictures are clearer than they were five years ago. And the lag time between the audio and video has never been smaller. “It used to be that you’d get a different [still image] every two seconds or so,” says John Willems, a litigation partner at New York’s White & Case. “Now it’s better. It’s much less herky-jerky than it used to be.” But it’s not perfect. And that’s what keeps attorneys from using it for critical tasks. Willems, for example, only uses the technology for minor depositions like authenticating records. “For a bigger deposition, I think it’d be hard to develop a real rapport with the witness,” he says. “I’d worry about missing a lot of nuance.” Charles Baker is a litigation partner in San Francisco’s Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s Austin, Texas office. He’s currently defending a large class action and routinely has to talk strategy with joint defense counsel from all over the country. On the surface, these talks seem to lend themselves well to videoconferencing. “But videoconferences are often really annoying,” says Baker. “The audio doesn’t pick up two people talking at the same time, and there still can be a significant delay.” So the group insists on face-to-face meetings, despite the costs and hassle of travel. When the technology improves, will lawyers flock to videoconferencing? Probably not. “There’s never going to be a replacement for face-to-face meetings,” says Stephen Foresta, a partner in Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s New York office. “With an adversary, it’s just too hard to read body language through a television screen. And client relationships are very personal. You want to be able to shake [a client's] hand, walk with them to the coffee machine.” But this attitude won’t keep firms from stocking up on videoconferencing equipment. Foley & Lardner’s Caddell says that in the last two years, the firm has equipped nearly all of its 16 offices with videoconferencing hardware and software. “We use it for some client work, but we use it mostly for CLEs and committee meetings, things like that,” he says. “It saves a lot of wear and tear on people.” Perhaps. But it’s probably not going to save the day for a lot of clients anytime soon.

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