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For Michael W. Johnston, it seemed like the perfect solution. A client needed to give a last-minute deposition. The problem: Johnston was in Atlanta and the client was in another part of the country. Though willing to make the trip, the client “wanted to make it quick,” said Johnston, a partner at King & Spalding and the leader of the firm’s labor and employment litigation practice group. To save time, they arranged a real-time videoconference for the next afternoon. “It was just like sitting across the table,” Johnston said. Though he uses videoconferencing equipment for a fairly small percentage of his client interaction, his firm uses it once a week or more for interoffice meetings. The Atlanta office’s three videoconferencing systems are booked most of the time, according to Thomas B. Gaines Jr., King & Spalding’s technology partner and chief information officer. “And we doubled our capacity [firmwide] last year.” At Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, which also uses videoconferencing, Eric R. Fenichel, a partner and member of the technology committee, said the equipment is worth it because of savings by lawyers who used videoconferencing as substitute for travel. “The conclusion is that it paid for itself in the first year.” But the attorneys at Sutherland and at King & Spalding are in the minority, according to the American Bar Association. The organization’s 1998 technology survey showed that just 21 percent of attorneys have used videoconferencing. And in the 2001 survey, the numbers dropped to 19 percent. “That was really surprising to us,” said David P. Whelan, director of the ABA’s legal technology resource center in Chicago. “It seems like the large firms are just starting to utilize the technology,” said Steven N. Stolberg, chief executive officer of TrialGraphix, a company that works with attorneys on exhibits, technology and trial consulting. PROBLEMS MAY POP UP Possible roadblocks include expense, transmission quality, people’s comfort level with the technology and the perceived difficulty of getting a system up and running. The cost runs the gamut. Small and medium-size firms can pay a few hundred dollars to rent an offsite videoconferencing room. Larger firms have spent tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment and networking. And with electronics evolving rapidly — and becoming obsolete just as quickly — it’s difficult for legal professionals to decide when or if it’s worth making the investment. A video “meeting” can take many forms. In some cases, companies dedicate a conference room to the equipment. Equipment usually includes a camera, microphones and some sort of display, such as a big-screen television or movie screen. Sometimes, as with two of the three units at King & Spalding’s Atlanta office, the technology is portable. Contained on a cart, it can be wheeled from room to room. And in other cases, the technology is linked to a PC. The user logs on, and a camera atop the computer broadcasts the picture, while a camera at the other end displays video of the person the attorney is calling. Also, with specialized software or networks, the system can be even more interactive. “Now you can work on documents and see the person — right on your desktop,” said Kathryn Romley, vice president of marketing for Viack Corp., an e-meeting provider based in Tempe, Ariz. QUALITY AND PRICE But quality varies widely in videoconferencing. Depending on the equipment and the connections, the video can resemble a badly dubbed foreign film — where the picture never quite matches the sound — or it can be as smooth and synchronized as a night of must-see TV. And, in many cases, the more a firm can spend, the better the result. Better equipment yields better synchronization between pictures and sound. So do high-quality telecommunication connections. Videoconference connections are typically made through ISDN or T1 lines. And the more lines (ISDN) or capacity on those lines (T1) are available for the conference, the better the audio and video quality. But for smaller firms, a PC-based interaction, a cable modem or DSL line should work fine, said Romley — though every meeting might not move over the Internet at the same speed with the same level of quality. For large or medium-size firms, Romley recommends “a T1 or higher.” Lawyers who want to try videoconferencing can find a system to fit almost any budget. There’s a catch, of course. Lower-priced systems are easy on the budget but may not be as effective or broad-based in their uses as costlier versions. For a few hundred dollars, for example, lawyers can mount a camera to their PC and talk in real time to someone with a similar setup a world away. The downside: There’s likely to be lag time between the audio and video, and possibly some video distortion. “That’s for a more personal situation,” said Stolberg. “I wouldn’t use it for a meeting or a deposition.” For a first-class presentation, $200 to $350 will rent a videoconferencing facility for an hour, he said. For considerably more money, attorneys can set up their own videoconferencing facility. When Alston & Bird outfitted its videoconferencing room, the equipment alone cost $20,000, said Jeffrey R. Allaman, the firm’s director of information technology. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice first started outfitting offices with videoconferencing equipment in 1995 — at a cost of $50,000 to $55,000 per facility, said Kirk W. Watkins, a partner at Womble Carlyle and former chairman of the firm’s technology committee. Now the cost has dropped to $22,000 for much more sophisticated equipment. THE COMPONENTS Typically, a videoconference setup will contain a camera or cameras, microphones, a display — such as a large-screen television or pull-down screen — and remote controls for the audio and video. First-class facilities have everything from specialized lighting to multiple microphones and cameras with automatic zoom capabilities. The higher the price, the more sophisticated and intuitive the equipment. But the better the quality, the more attorneys will be able to use it. “Buy the very best technology you can find,” King & Spalding’s Gaines said. Otherwise, the savings get “burned up” in time and service costs, he said. He also advises attorneys to try before they buy. When King & Spalding recently upgraded their equipment, they went offsite and had vendors demonstrate their machinery side-by-side “so that we could see the performance of each,” Gaines said. Attorneys also need to include the ongoing costs-per-minute connection fees, monthly T1 or ISDN charges and annual maintenance contracts. Though the rates will vary depending on the system and the firm’s location, the monthly totals can easily run hundreds or even thousands of dollars. THE NEXT BEST THING? If a person-to-person meeting rates 100 on the personal touch scale and a phone call rates 10, then a videoconference meeting is 35 to 40, according to Womble Carlyle’s Watkins. “It’s certainly not 100 percent,” he said. Though it does let lawyers see people’s physical responses, it’s still more difficult to communicate with body language when it is displayed in only two dimensions. “If you lean toward a witness when you ask a question — on videoconference you can’t get that same feeling across.” “No matter how hard people concentrate, I don’t think they concentrate nearly as much as if you’re sitting across from them,” said G. Lee Garrett, head of the litigation group in the Atlanta office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue. “It’s not so much looking them in the eye, as understanding what’s going on in the room,” said Johnston of King & Spalding. “Is the lawyer off camera giving nonverbal cues what to say or not to say? If that’s something you’re concerned about, you should always try to set up the videoconference so that you can see the other lawyer as well as the witness that you’re questioning and if you’re concerned about who else might be in the room, you just need to ask at the beginning and when you get back from each break to verify who was in the room.” Though the demand for the equipment at King & Spalding has grown steadily, it really became popular as a travel substitute after Sept. 11, Gaines said. But it also has limits. “It does not help you build relationships,” he said. “But it will help you maintain relationships.” Because it is a less-than-perfect substitute for face-to-face talks, many attorneys stress that they wouldn’t turn to videoconferencing for first-time client meetings or presentations to potential clients, ticklish negotiations or critical depositions. That’s why some local firms use it primarily to link distant offices. “It’s far exceeded our expectations in that,” Watkins said. But if the topic being discussed is controversial, it’s harder to control the smaller conversations that inevitably erupt, he said. As a speaker, “you know your voice is being heard, but you don’t know if anyone is listening.” ECONOMICAL APPLICATIONS Videoconferencing also has useful and economical applications for lawyers outside private practice. Several governmental organizations already are using the technology. Over the past two years, the Georgia Indigent Defense Council has spent $83,000 from a federal grant to outfit five locations including their Atlanta and Augusta offices and several Augusta-area jails with videoconferencing technology. “Attorneys and staff were spending more time in their cars driving back and forth to jails to interview clients than to do the work,” said Sarah J. Smith, director of government relations. Now clients go into a small, private room at the jail. Before leaving the room, a deputy helps them dial the council office on a PC. “You pull it up on a computer like you’re using Windows,” said Smith, who says that there is about a three-second delay between action and transmission. “Attorneys who use it love it,” Smith said. “It’s more secure for them. They are not putting themselves in direct danger, like they do when they go to the jail.” New York state is about to endorse videoconferencing in a big way. Late this month, the state was scheduled to allow a witness in a civil trial to testify — via real-time videoconferencing — from the prison where he’s serving 25 years to life. The practice run, which took place almost a year ago, wasn’t perfect, according to New York State Supreme Court Justice F. Dana Winslow. “It crashed a couple of times and proceeded with problems for a portion of the time,” he said. He gave the technology’s performance “a five or six out of 10″ rating, and cited a distracting, half-second lag between audio and video. But the technology has improved since the practice run. “I’m expecting a much better performance” at the trial, Winslow said. He also believes that videoconferencing is the best solution for all parties in this case. The civil court building hasn’t housed a criminal for years and the cost of transporting, guarding and keeping the witness would have cost at least $20,000, he said. The videoconference should run about $1,500. “I asked the attorneys to look in terms of the alternative — reading the deposition with nobody testifying, nobody on the stand,” Winslow said. “This is generations better than that.” Winslow believes the technology will improve even more — and the courts will be pioneers in the process. “We’re going to see it evolve,” he said. SAVINGS IN TRAVEL, TIME Private firms that have used videoconferencing also cite savings in time and travel. “I can really see it being very useful,” said Daniel R. McClure, a partner at Thomas, Kayden, Horstemeyer & Risley. More than half of McClure’s clients are in Taiwan — a trip that takes an entire day door-to-door. “Face-to-face communications are better than over the phone,” he said. “This is somewhere between the two.” Dana Dratch is a free-lance writer based in Atlanta.

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