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Trial Presentation Basics: Document Cameras

When it comes to trial presentation technology, most of the attention these days is focused on the software:  software that can catalogue thousands of documents and pieces of evidence; software that creates dynamic and sophisticated presentations; even software to create detailed interactive timelines. But despite the rapid growth of trial and litigation support software, one of the most popular pieces of trial technology is also one of the simplest: the document camera.

Document cameras are common fixtures in courtrooms (and classrooms) these days, having steadily replaced their venerable predecessor: the overhead projector. Rather than relying on transparencies, document cameras use small digital video cameras to capture high quality images of documents and objects placed beneath the lens. The video is instantly displayed on a monitor or LCD projector attached to the camera.

Imagine, for example, that you’re at trial and need to focus the court’s attention on a particular contract clause.  With a document camera, you’d simply place the contract below the camera and use the zoom buttons to focus in on the clause you need. While it may not be as sophisticated as trial presentation software, it also won’t require an assistant at the table with you to run the software for you.

Unfortunately, document cameras aren’t installed in every courtroom. Some jurisdictions offer them only in special “technology-enabled” courtrooms, while other supply only a limited number via integrated trial presentation podiums that attorneys can–if they’re lucky–reserve.

Because most modern document cameras are designed to be portable, lawyers without regular access to a technology-enabled courtroom may consider investing in their own camera. Prices range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on features, making them a viable option for solos and big firms alike.

If you’re shopping for a document camera, here are some key features you should look for:

  • Portability. Your document camera will do a lot of travelling, between your office, courthouses, and other meeting sites. Look for a device that can fold down to a smaller form-factor and see if a carrying case is included or offered.
  • Image quality. A document camera won’t do you any good – and may do you harm – if the quality of the images it displays is poor. Check the resolution of the devices carefully before purchasing. XGA offers the lowest resolution, SXGA is middle-of-the-road, and UXGA is considered high-definition. Consider the size of the courtroom you’ll be using the device in; the larger the room, the larger the image you’ll likely need to display.
  • Lighting. Look for a document camera with a built-in lighting element to illuminate the documents and objects placed below the camera. Proper lighting is essential to projecting the highest quality image.
  • Zoom. When using a document camera, you’ll often want to focus on a particular element of a document or object, like a notation in the margin of a contract or a small portion of a larger photograph. The document camera’s zoom feature will allow you to do this easily on the fly. Look for a document camera with a good zoom, and remember that optical zoom is generally better than digital zoom.
  • Ease of use. Struggling with your technology in the courtroom can make you appear unprofessional and can serve, indirectly, to undermine your arguments. If possible, test out document cameras for ease-of-use before investing, and be sure to practice extensively before court to be sure you’re entirely comfortable with the technology.
  • It’s not just the document camera. Your document camera will be useless in the courtroom without a digital projector and a screen. While these are very commonplace in modern courtrooms, verify that they’re available in your area. If not, consider investing in a portable screen and digital projector to create your own mobile high-tech courtroom.

One final thought: document cameras can be just as useful outside of the courtroom as they are inside. Ultimately, they’re nothing more than tools to help you present documents and other materials to an audience, a common occurrence in everything from arbitration hearings to client meetings. Use the technology creatively and you’ll find you get a better return on your investment.

Document Camera Vendors:

About Joshua Poje

Joshua Poje
Joshua Poje (@poje) is the Director of the ABA's Legal Technology Resource Center, where he provides technology and practice management guidance to attorneys throughout the country. He is the editor of the annual ABA Legal Technology Survey Report and a frequent speaker and writer on legal technology topics. Follow him on: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+

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