Convenient conferencing

Michael Kaye takes a look at the implications for the profession of improvements in video conferencing technology. Michael Kaye is senior partner at Kaye Tesler & Co and director of VCL.

Developments over the past few months are such that the use of video conferencing is likely to increase in the coming year with a major effect on the way in which solicitors and barristers conduct business.

Three major problems have plagued video conferencing from its outset:

Installation and operation of systems was expensive. A video conferencing room was required, equipped with specialised lighting and sound systems. Dedicated communication lines were needed. The average cost of such a room would be in the region of £85,000, plus running costs.

Even with a dedicated data transmission line, quality of signal, sound and picture reproduction was poor.

Once the aforementioned problems had been solved, so few people had systems that there was hardly anyone with whom it was possible to have a video conference. Use was thus limited until the number of users grew. For these reasons most video conferencing systems were owned and used only by major corporations to enable meetings to take place between their own high-level executives located across the world.

As the years have passed, technological advances have provided remedies for the first two problems. Camera technology has improved so that effective camera systems are now so small and strong that they can, for example, be concealed in a cricket stump. Directional microphones have been developed that will pick up the sound of individual speakers and ignore background noise. Most importantly, ISDN lines (capable of very rapid data transmission) have become readily and cheaply available. In addition to this, data compression techniques have improved.

However, effective systems do require an ISDN2e communication line. Inexpensive Internet-based systems or those using an ordinary telephone line are ineffective as an office working tool – despite being a nice gimmick for home use.

Prices have fallen so dramatically that working systems now fall within the financial reach of even the smallest solicitor's office, but systems are still overpriced to some extent. It is here that a company dedicated to the legal market can make a reasonable commercial profit while offering the profession and its clients a practical system at a price that ensures that the technology is self-financing.

Video Conferencing for Lawyers (VCL) offers different systems with increasing levels of sophistication, at leasing costs ranging between £100 and £175 (plus VAT) per month. The systems do not need a dedicated video conference room and are perfectly effective in a solicitor's own normal working environment. Picture quality is good, although not quite of television standard. Those who remember 8mm cine film will recall a frame rate of 16 frames per second. VCL video conferencing systems run at 15 frames per second, giving a clear picture. The improvement of sound over that of a telephone is so noticeable that the aural novelty is as great as that of seeing the other party.

The call cost for use of such a system is simply double the cost of an ordinary telephone call to the same location. Of obvious importance to the use of such a system for conferences with counsel is whether the discussion will be treated in the same way as a face to face conference, with time expended claimed as part of preparation and with the cost of the call claimed as a disbursement. Using a video conferencing system, the solicitor would avoid the problem of claiming travel at the usual two-thirds rate, and be able to use that travelling time more profitably. There are also benefits in terms of legal aid costs, notwithstanding the cost of the call.

The South Eastern Circuit taxing director says: “There is no reason why costs of a video conference should not be met from legal aid, so long as the combined costs were no more than those which would have been incurred had there been a face to face conference.”

Sadly, the third problem associated with video conferencing remains – namely a lack of people to video conference with. Although numbers are growing very quickly, there are still relatively few video conferencing systems in use. However, research shows the medium is due to take off this year with a projected two million people using the system by 1999.

While present use of video conferencing is confined to a small number of people, future video conferencing will be thought to be as simple as a telephone call. Effective systems can now be installed so cheaply that personal networks of users are steadily developing. Research in the US shows that lawyers are lending systems to clients, resulting in a client loyalty that until now has been the stuff of nostalgia.