We recently went to trial against a big-ass nationwide law firm. To prepare for this trial, in addition to mastering the law and facts, we decided to take the additional step of freaking out about trial technology. I’m hoping you can learn from our experience.
What I hope you’ll learn is: most trial technology is expensive bullshit. All you really need is a projector and Adobe Acrobat Standard.
We started our legal technology project as we start most projects: by procrastinating. After an appropriate period of procrastination, our project began with an email to opposing counsel at the big-ass firm, asking if he’d be willing to work together to share in-court technology. He did what he usually does with our attempts to cooperate: ignored it. So we set off to acquire an arsenal of legal tech that could outshine anything a big-ass firm could put together.
The first thing we did was to update our document management software. As I’ve previously blogged, this immediately hung up on the fact that the software vendor wanted us to pay several years in arrears before they were willing to update us. More from stubbornness than cheapness — though let’s be honest, from a great deal of cheapness, too — we refused. But we’re so clever we figured out a work-around. The old version of the software would run on an old laptop with a giant external hard drive attached. If this were a horror movie, the camera would now focus in on the old laptop, and ominous music would play ominously in the background.
We next decided that we needed trial software, and invested in three licenses for Trial Director, which promises that you’ll be able to do ALL KINDS OF INCREDIBLY COOL AND POWERFUL STUFF IN TRIAL like, you know, pop-outs. And, um, …. well, pop-outs. Which as near as I can tell are when you use your mouse to select some piece of text on the screen and it … you guessed it… pops out. It was also supposed to have all sorts of amazing organizational features. Notice the use of the past-disappointed tense. After investing a couple thousand dollars in Trial Director, we spent the next week or so (and we didn’t, at that point, have a lot of weeks before trial) trying to get it to load, and then another week or so getting error messages. Never! Mind! Our talented and persuasive paralegal called, returned our licenses, and got our money back.
But we did invest in a projector and screen. You know, the sort of sophisticated equipment you’d expect from people who live less than a mile from a Best Buy and who are too cheap to upgrade their software. More ominous music.
So that left us, on the eve of trial, with an ancient laptop, two new laptops (I forgot to mention how I was trying to master Windows 7 two weeks before trial — brilliant!), a projector, a screen, and Adobe Acrobat Standard 8. And me, a lawyer with aspirations to graphic design, playing with PowerPoint and Publisher much like Stuart Little played with his little car. (“Hey, what does this button do? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh shit.”)
We figured we’d just take the documents we wanted to display during trial, compile them into a pdf and then flip from page to page, occasionally using Acrobat’s editing features (highlighting, box-drawing) to draw attention to some significant piece of text. And — spoiler alert — this is what we did and it worked fabulously. If you’re here for the trial tech lesson, you can stop reading: so long as you don’t need to show video, which we didn’t, Acrobat — plus the occasional pdf’d PowerPoint slide or Publisher graphic — is all you need.
But the road to our pdf nirvana was still a bit bumpy. For example, confident as we were in our minimalist approach, it was still a shock to the system when Tim, our paralegal Caitlin, and our co-counsel Mari showed up at the courtroom the Friday before trial to set up. We had our Best Buy projector — which we had purchased and tried out in our conference room in Denver — and a screen that we had ordered online and had delivered to Mari, which she had learned to assemble in her home office in Berkeley. Crucially, prior to that Friday, the projector and screen had never before interacted with one another.
The big-ass law firm had:
- a real projector;
- a real screen;
- an Elmo*;
- extra monitors for the witness and the judge;
- an extra table for their technology hub, staffed by a specially-trained technology dude; and
- extra tables for all this fancy technology; with
- table skirts.
I think that could be a new item in my growing Jeff Foxworthy imitation: If the skirts on the tables supporting the courtroom technology of your opposing counsel are nicer than the skirt you’re wearing, you could be a plaintiffs’ lawyer!
I really should let Tim tell this part of the story, because I wasn’t there. I was just receiving frantic updates on my cell phone. Apparently the mail-order screen and the Best Buy projector were a match made in hell, the upshot of which was the courtroom was not big enough to give the projector enough distance to project an image of the proper size onto the screen. Even more exciting, in attempting to find the proper distance and angle, Tim and Mari apparently projected into the security cameras, causing the court security officers to charge worriedly into the courtroom.
Meanwhile the big-ass law firm’s team of technology professionals (the firm, of course, just sent its technology team; no lawyers were present) were busy assembling equipment and putting skirts on tables when the judge’s deputy came in an announced that only one screen would be permitted — we’d have to share. This was fine with our team and with their technology team — who were sweet and helpful — but we wondered how the news would go over with the big-ass law firm lawyers. With a word on the side to the clerk to please back us up on Monday when we requested a link to their projector to project our pdfs onto their screen, Tim and Mari packed up our equipment and tucked it away in the back of the courtroom. For those of you keeping score at home, the amount of fancy new hardware and software we brought to trial was precisely: zero.
The weekend brought even more technology adventures and heroic last-minute repairs, which I have to tell in bullet point format lest this post last longer than the trial:
- A motor in Tim’s wheelchair failed.
- We found a wheelchair tech who made a house call (hotel call?). (Thanks, John!)
- The old laptop screen failed — remember the ominous music?
- We found a computer tech who made a house call . . . on Sunday. (Thanks, Dean!)
- Just in case, we borrowed our co-counsel’s daughter’s monitor. (Thanks, Miya!)
- The old laptop screen started working again.
- Tim’s new laptop screen failed. He spent the rest of the trial tethered to the borrowed monitor.
By this time, the case was starting to bear more than a passing resemblance to My Cousin Vinny:
My suits were only slightly less heinous than Joe Pesci’s:
My partner was much better versed in the rules of evidence than I was.
And we had train tracks right outside our hotel window.** So not kidding:
But this is all building to the inevitable moment when the big-ass law firm lawyer learned he’d have to share his technology. And let me assure you, [DESCRIPTION DELETED BY TIM’S BETTER JUDGMENT, AND MY BETTER JUDGMENT TO ASK HIM ABOUT HIS BETTER JUDGMENT]. The Court told the parties to work it out, and we figured it was worth it to pay half of his technology bill to be able to project our pdfs on a big screen and on monitors in front of the judge and witness. I do think that our trial team owns one-half of a bunch of monitors and table skirts sitting in a storage room in a big-ass law firm somewhere.
* Not the doll. It’s like a modern-day overhead projector, taking the document or object you place on the illuminated surface and projecting it onto a screen. I.e., ways in which we have not progressed much beyond my 8th grade geometry class.
**I have to add that we love the Hyatt Summerville Suites in Emeryville. It’s perfect for our needs. The staff knows us and is outstanding and friendly. And we’re walking distance to both the Bay — for a relaxing stroll after a day in court — and a Trader Joe’s, which still doesn’t exist in Denver. Most of our trips west are like some sort of ancient trading caravan: we arrive laden with binders of legal documents and depart laden with Trader Joe’s condiments.