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Phone System Boosts Attorneys’ Efficiency in Court

Phone System Boosts Attorneys’ Efficiency in Court By SHELLY GARCIA Senior Reporter A technology commonly used in the business world is changing the way the courts handle their cases as well. It is a conference call system that allows attorneys to attend many of the more administrative hearings required without actually appearing at the courthouse. The system, provided throughout the Los Angeles court system by CourtCall LLC, cuts the time it takes to attend these types of hearings from hours to minutes, allows attorneys to expand their practices into courts up and down the state and can save clients a considerable amount of money in the bargain. “On an hourly basis, it can probably cut fees down about 20 percent, if you figure just travel time alone would be cut out,” said Allan Oberman, a Woodland Hills attorney. “On a three-and a-half hour appearance downtown two of those hours are spent traveling.” CourtCall was first tested in the L.A. area in the mid-1990s, but it is only in the last three years that it has been in use in greater San Fernando Valley courthouses. “It’s been going on for several years, but it’s caught on dramatically in the last year or two,” said James Felton, a partner at Greenberg & Bass in Encino. CourtCall, which now operates in 15 states and 47 counties in California, has wired 137 courtrooms in Los Angeles County and 26, or nearly 84 percent, of the civil courtrooms in the San Fernando and Antelope valleys. That’s up from just under 65 percent in 2001, the first year the effort was directed at the Valley. Although the system is beginning to move into some criminal courtrooms, its largest benefits are seen in the civil courts because civil practice attorneys can typically have cases in courthouses all over Southern California. “I really like it,” said Jim Curry, managing attorney at Bollington, Stilz, Bloeser & Curry, in-house counsel for 21st Century Insurance Group. “My office is in Woodland Hills. When I started practicing it took 25 minutes to an hour to get downtown. Now it’s an hour and a half to two hours.” Waiting game Status conferences meeting to determine how far along the sides have come in their discovery process or meetings to order the parties to mediation, another regular step in the civil litigation process, can take only minutes. But many such meetings are all scheduled at the same time, and attorneys are typically required to wait while other cases are heard. Many spend an hour at the court for a meeting that lasts for five minutes, and that doesn’t include the travel time. At $150 an hour, the low end of the range for attorneys fees, that means a client could spend $450 or more just to cover the expense of a five minute hearing needed to set a trial date. Mark Wapnick, a former attorney and president of Los Angeles-based CourtCall, who founded the company with another former attorney, Robert V. Alverado Jr., came upon the idea for the company because he was facing the very same circumstances. “In 1995, I had a one-minute court appearance in Orange County, and I commuted round trip a little over four hours,” said Wapnick. “I thought, I’m either going to eat this time, which is unacceptable, or I’m going to bill $300 of my very expensive time to my client, and that’s also unacceptable. They don’t need a $300-an-hour person driving.” Wapnick got back to the office and started working on the feasibility of a teleconferencing system that could be adapted for court use, and about a year later, tested the first system in two Los Angeles courts. But CourtCall lost out in the bid for the court-wide system to another company, and, under the competitor, the system was confined to the downtown courtrooms. The contract went back out for bid in 2000 and this time, CourtCall won it. Expansion Bolstered by business the company had developed elsewhere in the country in the meantime, CourtCall proceeded to expand the system in L.A. County. CourtCall provides all of the required equipment, including phone lines, speakers and fax machines for each court room, but each individual judge determines whether he or she wishes to have the conferencing system. “We sign up the judge and the judge will say, ‘I’m willing to allow court calls for the following kinds of matters at the following times,'” said Wapnick. “We then contact the lawyers. We can get the court calendars and we know which cases are being heard, so we let them know CourtCall is available at a particular time.” Attorneys, who pay a fee for each use ranging from $25 to $60 depending on the county, can determine which meetings they wish to attend by conference. “Some cases I do want to go in person because I want to talk to the attorney to find out where he’s going or discuss ways of getting it resolved,” said Oberman. The system works this way: Attorneys receive a pass code and a toll free number to call into at the appointed time. The pass code is set up so that only the attorneys in a particular court room are plugged into the same call. If the judge is hearing many cases during a morning, for example, each attorney just waits on the conference line until his or her case comes up. “Lawyers will listen and wait until they call their case, and there’s a variety of different services,” said Wapnick. “Some judges handle certain hearings in chambers and only want lawyers on that case to hear what’s going on. In that case, the operator puts only those lawyers into the call. Others are just like what happens in the open courtroom the lawyer is given a toll-free number to dial into and pass code that will get them into that appearance on that day and time.” Besides the time and cost savings, the system has also been used to handle unexpected problems that come up in scheduling, Wapnick said. “We had a judge call us one day and say, I’m home with the flu and I have a whole courtroom,” Wapnick recalled. “We said, ‘Fine, dial into the court,’ and the judge used the service.” In the greater Valley area, the system is now available in courthouses in Van Nuys, San Fernando, Chatsworth, Glendale, Burbank and Palmdale. Privately-held CourtCall does not release revenues, but the company has grown to 70 employees and has operations in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia. The company is set to expand into New York in the next few weeks. In addition, CourtCall operates in federal district and bankruptcy courts in California, New York, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon. Both partners have since given up their law practices and devote themselves full time to CourtCall.

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