Opus 2, which has been offering a semi-virtual integrated hearing and trial platform internationally, is now poised to also video capability, enabling completely virtual trials and hearings to take place seamlessly.
No doubt, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed the face of how lawyers work at least for now. Whether it will permanently probably depends on how long we are locked down. It hinges on the future willingness of lawyers and, more importantly, clients to pay for the expense and time associated with working in a non-virtual manner. Let’s face it, a lot of costs are incurred getting to and from meetings, hearings, and trials. As lawyers, we bill lots of hours waiting around courtrooms.
But for Courtroom litigation—trials and hearings–we may already be able to glimpse a possible future. Opus 2 has been providing, at least in the U.K. and internationally, a plethora of virtual resources for trials and hearings for some time. This platform enables semi-virtual participation: some litigation participants follow and participate in real-time from virtually anywhere. The resources are all cloud-based.
I recently talked to Graham Smith-Bernal, the founder and CEO of Opus 2, and Steve Fleming, its Chief Strategy Officer, about the platform. They told me that a lot of U.K. litigation and arbitrations are already conducted on a semi-virtual basis. A few key participants—the lead lawyers, the judge, and a smattering of courtroom personnel—are present in a courtroom, but most participants are present virtually. Much of the Madoff proceedings in which Opus 2 played a key role were conducted in just this fashion.
So far, the Opus 2 Hearing Manager has provided the interface for the hearing or trial, providing real-time transcription, the necessary remote connections, the court reporting services, and an edited end of the day transcript with synchronized audio. Opus 2 also provides a secure, private chat facility for each party and the ability to password-protect notes and document annotations. So all work product can be housed in the same place that each party can securely access without other parties seeing it. Of course, the public record is available for all to see. Opus 2 contracts with the court systems and/or the participants to supply these services.
The beauty of the service, of course, is its integration of various functions in one package, which makes its use easy and tempting for courts and litigators. Lawyers and other participants, and for that matter, judges can prepare their whole case in a virtual world using the platform. Fleming told me Opus 2 recently handled a three-month hearing with over 15,000 documents and over 1/3 of the participants attending virtually.
Smith-Bernal and Fleming believe this will make the ability to transition to an entirely virtual proceeding complete
Smith-Bernal and Fleming told me that Opus 2 is now in the process of adding complete video capabilities so that entire matters can also be viewed via video. Smith-Bernal and Fleming believe this will make the ability to transition to an entirely virtual proceeding complete.
Opus 2, which is based in London, has been offering its semi-virtual service for some time in the U.K. although it has not immediate plans to offer it in the U.S. Fleming and Smith-Bernal are mulling over whether and how the service might work here.
Of course, there are few jury trials in the U.K., so it’s perhaps easier. But I’ve done jury focus group work where all the mock jurors and parties participated virtually and find it works pretty well. And more and more depositions are being conducted virtually. As lawyers and judges get comfortable with this, it would be a small step to conduct more routine hearings virtually. From there, its another small step to holding virtual trials.
The advantages of virtual litigation in light of our present circumstances are obvious. The longer the world is on lockdown, the more the need for our court system to move to a virtual world. As Jordan Furlong recently so perceptively put it, we have to start thinking of our justice system as a service, not a place. A service that resolves a place, not a place where everyone has to be “in the same place at the same time.”
And think of the time and cost saved. Holding virtual proceedings would, of course, would eliminate travel time and the ability to bill for waiting around the courthouse until your matter is called. Widespread reliance on the billable hour model may, in fact, be why this hasn’t taken off till now. But as clients begin to see the savings that can be achieved, they may insist on it more and more.
For judges and courtroom personal, the savings in time are also apparent. More importantly, virtual hearings would reduce the time for matters to be heard, particularly now. Not to mention the reduced costs in operating large courtrooms that, frankly, sit idle most of the time.
The Opus 2 platform reduces paper, speeds up trials and hearings since the documents are instantly available, and creates a seamless record. The user interface says Smith-Bernal is easy and intuitive. He does recommend the user of two or even three monitors to make it all work.
Are we a long way from virtual trials? Maybe. But with the accelerated use of video conferencing and learning how much more efficient virtual proceedings can be, we may not be far off. Especially when there are services like Opus 2 out there. Let’s hope it makes a move to the U.S. sometime soon.
As Seth Grodin put it recently, the shift from digital may not necessarily be comfortable, but they are often more powerful and efficient. As lawyers, it’s our responsibility to take the lead in enabling our justice system to function effectively and efficiently.