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Courts Running Test : Lawyer Juggles 2 Cases 15 Miles Apart by Phone

January 22, 1986|JIM SCHACHTER | Times Staff Writer

Donovan Dunnion overcame every busy lawyer's recurring dilemma Tuesday. Faced with a calendar conflict, the San Diego attorney handled two cases, in two courthouses 15 miles apart, at virtually the same time.

Dunnion was the beneficiary of an amazing piece of technology that a handful of local judges will use over the next few months in a tradition-shattering experiment.

The name of this innovative device? The telephone. After months of debate by a profession inherently bound to tradition and precedent, court and bar officials Tuesday unveiled a program to test the telephone in time-consuming, but necessary, minor legal proceedings as a means of saving lawyers' time and clients' money.

The solution to Dunnion's dilemma exemplifies the high hopes of the experiment's sponsors, which include the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the San Diego Law Center, a joint venture of the University of San Diego and the San Diego County Bar Assn.

For some time, Dunnion had been scheduled for a 2:45 p.m. status conference before U.S. Magistrate Edward A. Infante in a federal civil suit. But Dunnion learned early Tuesday that another client, in most untimely fashion, would be arraigned on a felony charge during a 2 p.m. court session in El Cajon Municipal Court, about 15 miles away.

"Help," Dunnion said as he entered Infante's chambers at mid-morning, looking for a way out of the apparent conflict.

A court clerk assured him that the answer was simple. Dunnion already was scheduled for a teleconference in Infante's court, where the experiment began Dec. 10. He simply would need to call in at the appointed hour from El Cajon. Which is exactly what he did.

"It saved so much time it was ridiculous," Dunnion said later. "We had as good a conversation as we could have had in chambers, and it was over literally in a matter of seconds."

The project's proponents say Dunnion's experience, which should be repeated over and over by other attorneys during the five-month experiment, not only could make lawyers' lives easier but also could provide significant savings for their clients.

A study by the American Bar Assn. of similar experiments in Colorado and New Jersey found that clients being billed by their lawyers on an hourly basis saved an average of $130 for each hearing conducted by phone. Travel and waiting time, normally charged to clients when a lawyer makes a court appearance, were cut to nothing, the ABA found.

In San Diego, similar results are expected. "We have a great concern as to the high cost of the delivery of legal services," said John Seitman, president of the county bar association. "It's infrequent, in my experience, that a concrete opportunity comes along to do something about it."

The local experiment at first will involve civil matters scheduled to be heard by Infante, Vista Superior Court Judge Larry Kapiloff and Presiding Judge Donald Smith of the Superior Court in San Diego. Later, Smith's teleconferencing equipment will be moved to Superior Court Judge Arthur Jones' courtroom in San Diego.

The phone conferences will be used only for minor civil proceedings--conferences to assess the status of a case, administrative matters, and the like. Overall, the project will cost $25,000, with $5,000 kicked in by the county and the remainder contributed by the bar association and private donors.

That is a small price for a big step, according to Robert Simmons, the USD law professor who conceived the teleconferencing program.

"As a profession, we have not even begun to do what desperately needs to be done, not only in California trial courts but in all trial courts, to get into the 20th Century and prepare for the 21st Century," Simmons said.

Simmons plans to track cases to see if lawyers' time savings convert into dollar savings for clients. He sees a chance for bigger economies, too, if the experiment is successful and telephones--or, later, videoconferencing--gain a broader toehold in the area's courts.

"We need more courtrooms and we need more judges," said Simmons, a former judge and congressional candidate. "But we're more in need of modernizing our court facilities, court administration and court procedures, the net effect of which will be to reduce our need for more judges and more courtrooms."

County Supervisor Leon Williams, who backed county funding of the experiment, said such ventures have added importance in light of the county's plans to spend $420 million for new courts and jails, if a funding source can be found.

"In order for us to be able to meet those needs, we're going to have to utilize all the technology and innovative equipment available to us," Williams said.

There are pitfalls to telephonic proceedings, however. Lawyers and judges acknowledge that it reduces public access to courtroom activities. And it is not universally accepted by lawyers.

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