What's the best trial-presentation software for PCs? Naturally, it depends on who you ask, and what you're hoping to do with it. TrialMax is simple and speedy. Sanction is intuitive, and accessible. ExhibitView was first to market with a tie-in iPad app, and it's already had four major updates. But a December 2011 poll of the software-savvy members of the Trial Technology Group on LinkedIn revealed a clear favorite: Nearly two-thirds of the 158 respondents said they used inData Corporation's TrialDirector.
Like most trial-presentation software, TrialDirector lets you show different types of evidence and video depositions. But where it really shines is with the way it helps you organize large documents, manage huge data sets, and connect written transcripts with video clips. "InData has done a very good job with TrialDirector, and most people are very happy with it," says John Cleaves, supervisor of trial technology consulting at Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles.
At any given moment, Cleaves is either preparing for several cases or sitting in the "hot seat," running a tech presentation during a trial. So he needs to be able to use whatever presentation software the attorneys he's assisting are most comfortable with.
The trial-presentation software Sanction was the choice of 22 percent of respondents in that LinkedIn poll. However, its last major upgrade, released in the summer of 2011, was widely viewed as a stumble. But last summer LexisNexis acquired Sanction Solutions, so a new version may soon give TrialDirector some serious competition.
In fact, Cleaves says he's meeting with LexisNexis soon to see what's on the horizon for Sanction. But at this point, some of TrialDirector's biggest competitors are simply older versions of TrialDirector. "A lot of people stayed with Trial Director 5 when version 6 came out," says Cleaves.
It's not just full-time trial tech consultants who like TrialDirector. Fremont attorney Susan Q. Kalra says, "It's very user friendly; you can basically put any type of material in, and make changes on the fly." Kalra ran all of her own tech when she was a sole practitioner, and now that she works as a freelance attorney helping small firms and solos prepare for cases and depositions, she sometimes sits in the hot seat for them as well.
Kalra is agnostic on version 5 versus version 6 of TrialDirector, though she admits there was a steep learning curve with the software.
TrialDirector is $695, plus a $139 annual maintenance fee for support and upgrades. It's PC only, although a scaled-back version of it works with a free iPad app.
What about stand-alone tablet presentations apps? They're out there, and some, such as TrialPad, are surprisingly robust. But running a courtroom presentation off an iPad can still feel like bringing a knife to a gunfight. The hard drive size isn't big enough to store the voluminous amounts of documents and depositions that many trials require. And you need to pray that there's good Wi-Fi reception. Or - if you're really tech savvy - bring your own Apple TV device to deliver your evidence to the monitors wirelessly.
Of course, you really don't want to be learning the ins and outs of a sophisticated piece of software in the immediate run-up to a court date. So if you don't have time to master new trial-presentation software (or the funds to hire a trial tech consultant), Cleaves advises that you keep it simple: Stick with Windows Media Player for video and Adobe Acrobat for documents.
Windows Media Player has closed captioning, allowing you to present text synchronized with video clips. Ideally, you would trim the clips to show just what you need to display beforehand, and many free video-editing programs are available for download to help. But if you don't have the time or expertise to do that, Windows Media Player lets you drop in a bookmark, so you can jump to where you want a clip to start. Bookmarking is less than ideal, but it's infinitely preferable to scrolling back and forth trying to find the proper starting point. (Windows Media Player is free for PC users.)
Acrobat is useful because it can run your documents through optical character recognition (OCR) so that they aren't mere images of words but actual searchable text. You can highlight and underline key passages quickly with simple button presses. It even supports dual monitors, allowing you to scroll through files and select the next one to display on one monitor while another monitor shows the pristine document that those in the courtroom will see.
The latest version, Acrobat XI Pro, is about $200, and you can get a full-featured trial version for 30 days free via Adobe's website.
What do you do if you experience a tech-related meltdown in the courtroom? If a clip or document is accidentally deleted or misplaced, the instinct is to forget about everyone else in the room as you focus all your mental energy on trying to recover it. Or on browbeating the poor sap sitting in the hot seat. Advises consultant Cleaves: "You need to know when to say, 'Well, I was hoping to show a video clip, but it's not going to work. Let's move on and I'll come back to it.' "
Of course, some pretrial scouting is essential for tech presentations. When Kalra's helping solos prepare for a trial, she makes an appointment to visit the courtroom a week before trial to check out the tech setup. She scopes out various things: What sort of projectors and monitors do they have? How many power outlets are there, and where are they located? Is there a document camera available? What kind of AV cables will be needed?
At the same time, Kalra also lays the groundwork for a contingency plan. "Once I know where the case is going to be, I get the number of a few nearby copy shops that are open all night," she says. "I call beforehand to make sure that their hours haven't changed, and that they're amenable to delivering a stack of transparencies at 3 am, if need be. If everything else fails, you need a low-tech fallback."
Having to resort to transparencies and blow-up boards at the last minute means extra hassle and less flexibility for an attorney, but Kalra says that juries don't appear to take the evidence any less seriously. "It still seems that the presentation mode is not as important as what you're presenting to them," she says. "But as the jury pool gets younger, I wonder if that's going to change. People have access to video and screens all the time now, whether it's on a phone or laptop. Is that how they'll want to get information in a courtroom?"
If someone trips over one of your power cords or AV cables in the middle of a trial, you may have a personal injury suit waiting for you when your current case is over. So you'll need to tape everything down with something strong. But duct tape is a no-no: Court clerks hate the ugly residue it leaves when you pull it up.
Your best bet is to use what the lighting and sound technicians in Hollywood use - gaffer tape. Its cloth fibers make it as tough as duct tape, and you can tear a piece off cleanly without using scissors, just like you can with duct tape. But it uses a strong synthetic adhesive that comes off clean. You can find it at lighting and sound shops, and Amazon stocks several varieties as well.
Here's another pro tip from Hollywood: Use varied colors of gaffer tape on your different cables, so you can know at a glance which cable belongs to which device. But don't go too Hollywood - or you risk getting so carried away by all of the movie-set trappings that you may start reciting Al Pacino's "You're out of order!" speech from And Justice for All.
Chris Baker is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.