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  Des Moines Business Record

September 24, 2001

Lawyers lose yellow highlighters in cyberspace -
Web-enabled system allows attorneys to depose witnesses online and receive real-time transcripts while engaging in discreet conversations with experts, co-counsels

By Beth Dalbey
Des Moines Business Record

Deposing out-of-area witnesses used to mean expensive air travel, unproductive delays in airports, and per diems for lodging and food. But as the court system meets the information age, Des Moines lawyer Anjela Shutts simply hung up the phone.

Shutts is one of the first Iowa attorneys to use a Web-enabled deposition service called I-DEP®, which allows witnesses to be deposed at remote locations - in this instance, just outside San Francisco.

"It's a nice option to have," said Shutts, a lawyer with the Whitfield & Eddy law firm. And "after the deposition was over, I didn't have to take a plane back to Des Moines."

Making more efficient use of attorneys' time was the impetus behind Chicago-basedI-DEP, the nation's first fully integrated, live, streaming-media Web-based deposition service. Chicago attorney Julie Furer was remarking to colleague Jay Jackson that taking another round of depositions in a case for which she wasn't even the lead counsel would make her unavailable to other clients for at least two days.

"Wouldn't it be great," she said, "if you could do that from your office?"

"That was the nucleus of the inception," said Jackson, who coupled his Internet development and marketing savvy with Furer's legal know-how in developing the company.

Venture capital was secured from angel investors in 1999 and the service was launched in March 2000. Seven months later, the company received its first revenues when two St Louis law firms used its service to depose a person in New York in a national class-action lawsuit. Eight months later, the young company was named one of Chicago's top 75 "new economy" companies by i-Street.com, a source for news and networking in the information technology economy in Chicago and the Midwest.

"Obviously, a number of those companies are no longer with us," said Leigh Hanlon, an I-DEP spokesman. "We feel very fortunate."

Jackson, the company's president and chief executive officer, said lawyers are such creatures of habit that they still prefer to review paper manuscripts with a yellow highlighter in hand when time-saving electronic alternatives would work just as well. As a result, they've been slow to warm up to the online world, Jackson said, and their initial reaction to I-DEP was no exception.

"In any new technology, lawyers are a little behind the curve," he said. "We're a little ahead of the power curve. We're a brand-new company with a brand-new technology, and there's a natural fear of the unknown."

Even alter successful test runs in which attorneys and insurance companies were offered free use of the technology, Fortune 500 companies and large insurers remain I-DEP's key clients.

"It took awhile to figure out how to sell it," Jackson said. "Most lawyers tend to be technophobes and don't like change. Really, it was clients who recognized the cost savings because they're the ones paying the bills."

Kenneth A. Duker, a lawyer with Johnson, Hester, Walter and Breckenridge in Ottumwa, was the first attorney in Iowa to use the I-DEP service. He estimates he saved his client, a defendant in a Wapello County criminal assault case, about $4,000 by using the Web-enabled system to depose two prosecution witnesses, one in Dallas and the other in Tulsa.

"We didn't want to pay to fly them up here or to go down there, and this was a happy alternative," Duker said. "I started with one act of depositions at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and was done with both depositions by 4. To have flown down to Dallas to take depositions - assuming you can get flights at the right time -would have taken eight to 10 hours and I still would have to do Tulsa."

Jackson said though Internet depositions may not be appropriate for all situations, they are especially well suited for multiple-party and peripheral-witness depositions, and for most telephone depositions.

Shutts doubts she would have deposed the California witness for the divorce ease she is handling if not for the availability of services like I-DEP.

"This is a witness we had initially discussed bringing back no testify, but because of time constraints, the witness wasn't going to be able to come back," she maid. "This was the next best thing."

In addition to the live video, two-way audio and real-time court reporter's transcript. I-DEP's discreet "instant chat" feature offers competitive and tactical advantages to attorneys.

The instant messaging function allows attorneys to maintain private conversations with experts and co-counsels and to consult with research staff without the physical distraction of getting up and leaving the room.

"Anybody, anywhere could be listening if they had the password," said Duker. "If a case involved three or four states, you could base counsel frost other states listening to depositions and typing in a chat room. This way, we can have a completely private conversation with experts and co-counsel, and the other side has no clue what is being said."

Nuances like an eyebrow raised in disbelief are hidden from opposing counsel in online depositions, unlike those conducted in the time-honored tradition of attorneys for each side sitting across a table from one another.

"The poker game becomes better," Duker said. "You can hide your cards a little better, I suppose."

But the video camera trained on the witness does betray his or her body language. "One of the nice things is, given the way they set up the camera in the deposition, is you could tell if the guy was nervous or antsy," Duker said. "That's one of the things attorneys notice and pick up, and you don't lose that."

"That's a big advantage for the judge later on when he or she reads the deposition or sees the video," added Shutts. "There are always issues of credibility, and you can view credibility best by just seeing someone in person."

Shutts has been involved in telephone depositions in the past, and said, "it's very nice to be able to see the witness throughout the deposition."

"The technology obviously brings videoconferencing to regular firms," said Shutts. Whitfield & Eddy has about 40 lawyers and "that's big in terms of law firms in Des Moines, but I don't know of a single law firm in Des Moines that has a videoconferencing center."

I-DEP hosts about 30 Web-based depositions a month. With 2.4 million depositions taken annually in the United States, Jackson sees unlimited potential for his company. Some legal experts, including those with the American Bar Association, have estimated that within five years, half of all depositions may involve some form of electronic or remote participation.

"Those are quite big numbers," Jackson said. "Virtually all attorneys who have used
I-DEP have come back and used it again. Initially, they needed a little push."

He views Iowa as "a fabulous market, which is funny, because it's in the middle of cornfields."

"But Iowa is really among the leaders for its size, one of our leading markets," he said. He credits that success to Des Moines-based Huney Vaughn Court Reporters Ltd. giving its lawyer clients a "gentle push" to use the service.

Co-owner Mervin Vaughn said he and his partner, George Huney, remember when court reporting involved a stenographer with a pen and pad, but said the firm was one of the first in the Midwest and the first in Iowa to offer computer transcripts.

"We try to keep up with technology as it changes along the way," said Vaughn. "This is just one of those changes."

Huney Vaughn signed on with I-DEP in July and held an open house in August to introduce attorneys to the service.

"It helps a lot to have a court reporting firm totally embrace this technology," said Jackson. "Lawyers trust their court reporters for all things deposition-related."

Duker said he enjoyed the experience and will use I-DEP again if the opportunity arises. "It's a way to save clients money," he said.

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