Video conferencing technology is better, faster and cheaper than ever.

Video conferencing technology is better, faster and cheaper than ever. By Dana Dratch for the Daily Report

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 video conferencing 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 video conferencing 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 video conferencing, Eric R. Fenichel, a partner and member of the technology committee, said the equipment is worth it because of savings by lawyers who used video conferencing as substitute for travel. “The conclusion is that it paid for itself in the first year.”

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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, Arizona.

Quality and Price

Quality varies widely in video conferencing. 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. Video conference 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-sized firms, Romley recommends “a T1 or higher.” Lawyers who want to try video conferencing can find a system to fit almost any budget. For a few hundred dollars, lawyers can mount a camera to their PC and talk in real time to someone with a similar setup a world away.

Economical Applications

Video conferencing 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 video conferencing 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.

"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."

Savings in Travel, Time

Private firms that have used video conferencing 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."

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©Fulton County Daily Report, January 13, 2003

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