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Attorneys and judges discuss the role of technology in today’s law practice

All last week Minnesota Continuing Legal Education (MCLE), a division of the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA), held CLE programs geared toward technology and the legal profession. The programs were designed to show lawyers how to use technology effectively in their practices, how to address the issues technology creates, and how to plan for the future.

“Tech Week” opened with a discussion entitled “The role of technology in today’s law practice” and included an expert panel of distinguished attorneys and judges in tune to the growth of technology. The discussion focused on the impact of technology on the legal profession and what the new millennium holds for future technological advances.

Panelists included Minnesota Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edward Toussaint, Jr., Minneapolis attorneys Becky R. Thorson and LaVern A. Pritchard, U.S. District Court Judge John R. Tunheim and Wells H. Anderson of Wells Anderson Legal Tech Services.

William Mitchell College of Law Professor Robert E. Oliphant moderated the panel discussion.


Toussaint began the discussion by talking about the use of interactive video, particularly in trials and at the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The chief judge observed that in only one case in the state of Minnesota has a witness been permitted to appear in a criminal trial by way of interactive video or interactive television (ITV). In the 1999 case of State v. Sewell, the witness, who was living in Arizona, was unable to travel due to a medical condition. The trial court judge allowed the witness to testify by ITV over the defendant’s objections. The issue, the judge noted, related to the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers.

Toussaint treated the audience to several video clips of the witness’s testimony in the Sewell case. Toussaint pointed out that there were some problems with the technology used. For example, he noted, it was difficult to see the witness’s facial expressions — something that assists jurors in making credibility determinations. Toussaint told the attendees that he would have moved the camera closer to the witness’s face to make it more of a portrait shot. He also said he would have significantly changed the witness’s background to allow the jury to see his face better.

The National Center for State Courts is doing a study on the effect of the use of this kind of technology in the courtroom, Toussaint noted, adding that “preliminary studies [reveal] that juries say that if it looks like TV, they’ll believe it.”

ITV is a tool that is already being used in some states for arraignments and some commitment hearings, Toussaint observed. In Minnesota, the technology is being used in the 7th, 8th and 9th Judicial Districts to do a lot of things, primarily to eliminate the amount of travel required in outstate areas.

On the appellate level, ITV is currently being used to hear oral arguments in some cases. During these arguments, the judges view a 32-inch screen of the arguing attorney, as well as another 32-inch screen of the appellate panel itself. The technology is not perfect yet, Toussaint acknowledged. Judges are currently evaluating the things that may prevent communication or dialogue, or affect the persuasiveness of the arguments, the chief judge added.

“We want to eliminate those things which hamper or prevent the party from being persuasive,” said Toussaint. “We want [the attorneys] to feel that they are in a courtroom arguing before the judges.”

Nonetheless, the chief judge continued, the use of ITV at the appellate level has proven beneficial to the bench, the bar and even clients. The greatest benefit, in addition to more efficient case scheduling and case management for the court, has been the time-saving element, according to Toussaint. The use of ITV benefits attorneys and clients by reducing travel time — thereby reducing costs — and makes it easier for clients to attend and observe hearings, the chief judge noted.

Small firms

Large law firms aren’t the only ones that can benefit from emerging technologies, Thorson pointed out. Thorson discussed the technological tools a small firm can use to improve client services.

PowerPoint can be instrumental in assisting a lawyer with a trial presentation, Thorson said.

“It is important not only to learn how to use it, but how not to use it,” she observed. “Make sure it reflects the professionalism that you have in your brief and in every presentation you make.”

Another program Thorson’s law firm uses frequently is Visio — a cost-effective graphics program from Microsoft.

One of Thorson’s favorite new programs is TimeMap. Using this program, a lawyer simply needs to input relevant dates, events and information and the program automatically plots out a timeline.

It is important to think about graphics not only at trial, but also when analyzing and preparing a case for trial, Thorson observed.

“Embrace [the new technology] or miss out,” said Thorson. Attorneys need to remember that what many of them are trying to grasp in terms of technology may not be a big deal to some of their clients who are already familiar with it.

Much of the new technology out there will assist the profession in achieving mobility, efficiency, connectivity, and compatibility — especially with regard to clients, said Thorson. She urged audience members to experiment with what works, adding, “Know what doesn’t work, too.”

Thorson next discussed the CaseMap program, which she said is still in the experimental stage. “This program is a way to preserve what you are thinking about a case,” she said.

Future courtrooms

With respect to the federal courtrooms, Judge Tunheim observed: “We are moving quickly after a relatively late start in the game of technology.” He noted that two of the federal courtrooms are fully automated, although they are largely outmoded already after only 3 1/2 years of operation.

Tunheim observed that new evidence presentation systems are being installed in each District Court courtroom in Minneapolis and St. Paul, adding that the work should be done within the next couple of months. The remodeled courtrooms will be equipped with an evidence cart with a microphone, a document camera, laptop and VCR input jacks with audio capacity, audio/visual input jacks, a cassette input jack, an audio monitor, and an annotation monitor — allowing attorneys to mark up documents onscreen.

In addition, flat panel monitors will be placed throughout the federal courtrooms. In Minneapolis, there will eight for the jury, three up at the bench, one at each of the counsel tables, one for the witness and one at the lectern. A large spectator monitor will also be installed in the back of the room. The lectern will be more automated, with a monitor and a time indicator. Finally, real-time transcription will be available. (Real-time transcription directs the input from a court reporter’s stenographic keyboard to a computer screen that displays a running transcript of the actual words.)

In the St. Paul courtrooms, instead of installing eight 15-inch monitors for jury members, two 21-inch monitors will be mounted for them.

“You can expect throughout the country that all federal courtrooms will be refur
bished in the next two to three years [and] we will expect lawyers to use the new technology,” said Tunheim, adding that the court will provide training to lawyers when necessary.

The judge also informed audience members that decisions by the federal District Court in Minnesota are now available on the court’s Web site. What opinions go on the Web will be up to the judges, but Tunheim expects virtually all of them to be included except for brief orders. (The federal District Court’s Web site is

Tunheim noted that electronic access to court calendars and a jury management system is also on the way. The biggest change coming to the courts and the most complex initiative ever, according to Tunheim, is electronic case filing. He expects that attorneys will first begin filing District Court documents electronically during the summer of 2002, although that date could be pushed back.

Other initiatives, Tunheim observed, include video conferencing, the gradual automation of virtually all court functions, and eventually, wireless communications.


Minneapolis attorney LaVern A. Pritchard, the founder of — a Minnesota legal search engine and law portal — discussed the importance of and the challenges involved in keeping up with the changing technology.

“Law firms and the legal profession as a whole are very much in a catch-up mode about what is going on,” Pritchard observed.

This continuous “catch-up” mode may be due in part to the fact that lawyers face unique challenges when it comes to implementing new technology. One challenge is figuring out how to change in a positive way — how to take advantage of the technological opportunities out there, yet maintain what we value as attorneys.

“Technology and change are as complicated and confusing as they are progressive,” Pritchard acknowledged. Nonetheless, attorneys have to keep pace with the times to keep pace with today’s clients and future clients, he observed.

The pace of the technological changes taking place is very rapid in this country, and like it or not, the legal profession is not in control of it, Pritchard observed. And the gap between the leading innovators and those lagging behind continues to widen.

“Lawyers as a whole are behind the curve,” said Pritchard. “The challenge is to get ahead of the curve,” he added, urging attorneys to push to the forefront.

Today’s clients want something additional from their lawyers. They want easy, convenient, responsive, and rapid service, Pritchard observed. Keeping up with and staying ahead of the technology available to legal professionals is one way to meet those demands.

“Clients want what we can deliver in new ways,” said Pritchard.

What’s ahead

Anderson touched on what lies ahead for lawyers.

He referred to what is occurring today as “information overload,” adding that “the pace isn’t going to slow down.” Technology, Anderson observed, plays a key role in helping us manage that information.

As an example of new technology available to lawyers, Anderson displayed for audience members a screen from the Westworks Web page — a service of West Group’s application service provider (ASP) initiative — that brings case management, client management and legal research management to attorneys’ desktops over the Internet.

According to Anderson, other changes down the road include real advances in communication, the widespread implementation of voice technology, and a continuing move toward a paperless profession.

“I see the new technologies coming down the road as letting us work anytime and anywhere,” said Anderson. “Maybe that looks like a burden, but wherever there is a burden there is also an opportunity.”

He believes that the hours that we work and the places that we work will also change as we go forward.

In fact, for those attorneys who want to work anytime, anyplace, anywhere, all they need is a laptop computer, a wireless modem and a headset. “They can have a full law office with [them] whereever [they] go,” said Anderson. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s also a neat opportunity.”

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