Simply put, trial lawyers are storytellers. Connecting jurors, visually and audibly, with key information helps to ensure they will remember the details regardless of a trial’s length. So, what do we need to do to make our story stick? In other words, how can we tell a better story? This is where technology comes in.
My First Firsthand Technology Win
Back in the ’90s, I had a case where it was important that the jury focused on parts of medical records that had pertinent information buried in them. The trial took place not long after documentarian Ken Burns released his multi-award-winning film about the Civil War. I was captivated by how Burns zoomed in and panned out on still photographs so they resembled moving pictures. I hired a company to build a similar presentation for my case. During the trial, I could tell I really connected with the jury because I was playing above their expectations. The other side was using flip charts, blown-up photos, paper documents, and a highlighter, while I had an optical disk drive presentation. The jury’s reception of my use of technology convinced me early in my career that technology is essential to effective trial presentation.
In my 40 years of practicing law, I’ve seen law firms transition from Wang word processors to MS-DOS to iPads. The pace of change was rapid, and the ongoing question for lawyers regarding technology is whether we’re going to adopt, adapt, incorporate and utilize it, or be fearful of progress and its tools.
The Tech Challenge for Lawyers
It’s no secret the legal profession has been slow to adopt technology. Lawyers by nature want to control our environment as much as possible. We want to present well. Therefore, we sometimes view technology as a threat because it can prove challenging and cause trouble during the presentation if we fail to master it and understand what is involved. It’s the fear of failure that prevents some in the legal profession from embracing changes in technology.
But technology doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. An iPad, Apple TV, or flat-screen television, along with the right cables and wires, tools and applications such as PowerPoint, are all reasonable investments as well as technologies any lawyer can master with practice. If you conduct a lot of Zoom meetings, and most of us now do, consider investing in a ring light, a good microphone, and a camera so you sound clear and look sharp. If you invest in the right tools—and keep it simple—you’ve got a better chance of winning the case, winning the client, and nailing the presentation. The return on investment is priceless.
The legal field is competitive, and we have to adapt and adopt or fail. Since the pandemic started, our profession has been forced to change and is quickly evolving. Our audience has different expectations. In the Seattle area where I’m located, our judges have rapidly shifted their expectations, requiring lawyers to hold Zoom hearings and Zoom trials. The expectations from the jurors are also high. If you watch CNN, FOX News, or just about any local news channels, you’ll see incredible visual displays of data and information daily. The Weather Channel, for example, excels at immersive mixed reality, where during a broadcast, viewers can watch a holographic tornado “whirl” through the studio. Our jury audiences are watching these programs and, combined with their own sophisticated use of technology daily, have raised expectations for how we should be presenting our cases to them in the courtroom.
Not adapting comes at a big cost. It makes a difference when the jury sees the lawyer personally controlling how the information goes up on screen, as opposed to relying on another staffer. Lawyers who outsource the tech component are missing out because they can’t get a good grasp of what they can do visually with these tools. When lawyers create their own visual storyboard of their case from the beginning, it helps them understand how they’ll present and how their audience might experience that presentation. It helps create a better story.
My Role in Bringing Tech to Court
In 2017, the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel (FDCC) recognized the advantages technology offered in trial presentation. Our members knew law firms all over the country were going to increasingly incorporate technology in their research, management of information, and storytelling at trial. We decided as an organization that we needed to teach the latest software and tech tools to our peers, and I have been fortunate to play a role in this effort.
The attorneys who are invited to join the FDCC are at the top of their game as trial lawyers. However, in the past, that didn’t always mean these same lawyers were personally maximizing their use of technology. We wanted to help people become better visual storytellers with technology. The FDCC Evolve program was created to help educate and train trial lawyers and corporate counsels on how technology can improve their daily practice and presentation. During the FDCC’s concentrated three-day FedTechU sessions, members can get certified as Technology Master Advocates.
In many ways, the pandemic has helped push lawyers to embrace technology. Law firms that used to be reluctant to utilize cloud-based services and collaboration apps now incorporate ShareFile, DropBox, TrialLine, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom into their daily operations. Attorneys who have previously recognized and embraced the use of advanced technology as part of their practice, especially the FDCC’s FedTechU alumni, have not only excelled in the courtroom but also at working from their home offices and kitchen tables during the past two years.
Next Level Lawyering
As 2022 dawns, the legal industry should take inventory of what we’ve learned during the pandemic and how we can take this new model to the next level of service. We need to prepare now and become part of developing these new elements of our practice to maintain our differentiation as well as the upper hand, while we serve our clients. To set ourselves apart from our competitors, we need to take the next, natural step toward what I call Next-Level Lawyering.
This concept of Next Level Lawyering is a mindset as much as a practice. It’s about embracing an attitude of openness and being receptive to learning. It’s a state that allows us to imagine a future where we’re able to evaluate a witness’ truthfulness through facial recognition technology as much as our instincts. This mindset encourages us to consider using an augmented reality presentation where the jury can view a pre-recorded visual piece of information, using headsets, and spend time in the scene virtually while we describe the scene for them.
There’s a lot of innovative technology out there. As lawyers, we need to be open and think creatively about how we can use these tools in the courtroom and our offices.
And a note on AI for those who may be skeptical. AI is increasingly part of what we do every day. It influences the data we gather, the results we get from that data, and the predictive outcomes that come from it. In terms of the audiences, we’re presenting to, AI can even tell us if certain information we are considering is going to be received well or not.
A Tool, Not a Substitution
I’m at a late stage in my career, and I’m still completely fascinated by how trial attorneys can be more persuasive and how technology can help us in doing so. The heart of what we do is never going to be machined out. Our ability to connect verbally with someone, to put together a persuasive story, and then stand up and tell our stories well cannot be programmed or coded. That human interaction element of what we do with the jury is timeless. However, I also firmly believe technology is an essential tool that will take us to the next level of storytelling and the next level of lawyering.
About the Author
Robert L. Christie is principal of Christie Law Group, PLLC, and 2021-2022 president of the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.