The Case for Videoconferencing?

Technology wise, the law has always lagged behind the rest of the world.  

A few months ago, I tried a case in Montgomery County Circuit and got a great verdict. Shortly afterward, I received the defendant’s motion for a new trial. I read the motion and discussed it with a few of the other lawyers in my office. None of us thought it was a strong motion, and we all believed it was likely to be denied. Until I got a hearing notice in the mail.

Well, I live in Baltimore County, near Towson. I have to be in the car by 7:30 if I hope to be in Rockville by 9 a.m., and I need to make alternative arrangements to get my daughter to daycare since they don’t open early enough to drop her off and still get to Rockville in time.

So the day of the hearing arrives, I make my arrangements, leave early, and drive the 1.5 hours to Rockville. Shortly before 9 a.m., I am sitting in the lobby outside the courtroom when our judge’s law clerk comes out and lets me know that our judge was out sick, and the hearing would need to be rescheduled. Bummer, but O.K., everybody gets sick. I have had hearings rescheduled before because I got sick. It’s part of life. So we reschedule the hearing for the following Monday and I drive an hour back to my office.

The next Monday arrives. I do the same routine. I get in the car early, drive 1.5 hours to Rockville. My hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. I arrive at the courtroom a few minutes before 9 (I like being early, in case of traffic, etc.). Here comes the law clerk again. He tells me that our judge has two sentencings in criminal cases set for 9 a.m., so our hearing may start a few minutes late. I understand why these get taken first. You have the same prosecutor in both cases. You need prisoners transported from lockup. You need Sheriff’s deputies for security. I totally get why the judge wants to take these first and get them out of the way.

Well, these take a little longer than advertised. Actually, a lot longer. My hearing is called at 10:45, an hour and fifteen minutes after it was scheduled to begin. Almost as soon as the defense attorney starts talking, it is apparent to me from the judge’s questioning, facial expressions and body language that the defendant’s motion is going to be denied. The judge is using the arguments from my opposition, and quizzing defense counsel on the portions of the transcript I highlighted. As I usually do when it looks like I am winning, I keep my argument very brief. I don’t remember being asked any questions. I think I talked for less than four minutes. The judge rules. Motion denied. I get back in the car, and drive an hour back to my office.

Total time expended: 7 hours if you include both trips. If you include only the second trip: 4.5 hours. All this time expended to give 4 minutes of argument, during a hearing that took 15 minutes.
This got me thinking. Would anybody in the business world expend that kind of time traveling for a meeting just for 15 minutes of face time and 4 minutes of actual participation? My conclusion was no unless there was no other choice.

I don’t have any problem with what the court did as far as scheduling. Given the available options, it made sense. But you can’t tell me that this wasn’t something that could have been handled just as effectively, and much more efficiently, by a video conference (through Gotomeeting, for example) or even by a telephone conference call. I “attend” CLE’s done this way all the time.

The judge would still have spent the same amount of time on it. I would have saved 4 hours of time that could have gone to other clients and other matters, and the defense attorney’s client would have saved money by not paying him for the time he spent traveling back and forth to the hearing. Obviously, for video conferencing, there would be some investment on the front end in terms of the technology for the court, but otherwise, I can’t see the downside.

I bet that a telephone conference could have been done using the existing equipment that everyone already has. It might be different for criminal cases where there could be constitutional implications, but on the civil side, I don’t see any reason that routine motions hearings could not be done remotely. I just don’t see a good reason here for investing the amount of time (from everybody) that this required.