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NEXT L.A. | The Next Wave

Low-Tech Solution

Speakerphone appointments let attorneys handle matters without visiting court.

September 03, 1996

It saves time. It makes money. It even reduces stress.

It's hailed as a high-tech savior. Praised as an innovative way to cut through some of the gridlock--and flush out some of the frustration--that burdens Los Angeles County's overworked courts.

It is . . . the speakerphone.

Hardly revolutionary technology. But the lowly speakerphone is making life a lot easier--and potentially more profitable--in nine county courtrooms.

CourtCall, a private company founded by two Los Angeles lawyers, installed the speakerphones as part of a pilot project to allow attorneys to conduct routine business over the phone.

In the Stone Age days of, oh, a month ago, attorneys from all over town had to trek to courtrooms in person for even the most minor matter. They could end up driving three hours for a three-minute conference with the judge. Their client, of course, footed the bill.

CourtCall aims to streamline the process.

An attorney with a routine matter before one of the nine participating judges can phone CourtCall to request a "telephonic appearance." Most judges now accept phone calls only for the most basic judicial business--such as status conferences, when each side briefly reports pretrial progress on a case.

CourtCall schedules all the phone conferences in a given courtroom for the same time--8:30 a.m. Tuesday, for example. At the appointed moment, the lawyers call a toll-free number that patches into the courtroom. The clerk checks them in by phone, and the attorneys wait on the line until the judge calls their case.

The whole experience--including the wait--mimics the traditional courtroom atmosphere during early morning "cattle calls," when judges roll through dozens of minor matters before lunch.

"We handle the case as if they were standing there," said Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, a big fan of CourtCall. With the quality speakerphones provided by CourtCall, Cooper said, voices come through loud and clear: "It's as if they were present in the courtroom."

Telephonic appearances have been legal for the last decade, but setting them up was often more of a hassle than fighting traffic on the San Diego Freeway. Under the old system, opposing lawyers had to agree on a time for a conference call, then mesh their schedules with the judge's--a process that usually required round after round of phone tag.

Now, CourtCall has taken over the scheduling. For a price.

CourtCall charges each attorney $40 per conference call. The partners keep $19.50 of that fee. The rest goes to the county. Because the court does not have to do extra work to host the conference calls, the $20.50 per call is considered profit for the public coffers.

"In these current times of fiscal crises, we have to hope for more public-private partnerships like these," said Judge Judith Ashmann, head of the Superior Court's technology committee.

Attorneys, too, say they find it more profitable to pay CourtCall's $40 fee than to waste hours of billable time in traffic.

Long Beach lawyer Valerie K. deMartino said she saved at least two hours the other day by transacting her court business on the phone. Instead of sitting in gridlock memorizing traffic reports, she was at her desk, able to write letters or research issues while waiting for her case to be called.

"It's great," deMartino said. "I really do like it."

For all the praise lavished on CourtCall--which was founded by attorneys Mark S. Wapnick and Robert V. Alvarado Jr.--there have been a few glitches.

One lawyer called in on a scratchy cellular phone, violating protocol. Another phoned from an airport, where booming announcements of departing flights muffled his voice. And then there was the panic in Judge Cooper's court when she said goodbye to all her conference callers on the first day of the program--only to realize she had no idea how to switch off the speakerphone.

"We started hearing phones ringing, people talking in the background," she said. "It was rather alarming because I was trying to run a jury trial." Finally, she unplugged the phone--and requested remedial training.

"Now we know how to turn it on and off and we feel mighty sophisticated," Cooper said, chuckling. "Kicking and screaming into the 20th century--here we come."

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