When Tech Fails

Entire conferences are built around shiny iToys, and attended by lawyers who inexplicably adore their gadgets more than they do the skills like cross-examination or, heaven forfend, persuasive writing.  Because technology is the future. Because tech is their friend.

Except when it fails. Via Alex Craigie:

But the internet is all abuzz about Michael Bay’s meltdown on Monday during a Samsung press conference at the CES 2014 Conference. If you’ve missed the viral video, it’s not really that earth shattering. But, let’s agree that it’s lucky for Bay that he doesn’t have to count on his public speaking skills to earn a paycheck. If you or I were presenting evidence and our computer or Trial Director program went screwy, apologizing and walking off wouldn’t be a realistic option.

The video isn’t particularly interesting to watch, and I was unaware that it went viral as it didn’t make as much as a dent among the people I know, but upon watching it — it’s short enough to endure — I was struck by a few things.

First, that Michael Bay, who is an action movie director, came on stage to put on a dog and pony show.  This was to be a carefully scripted “interview” designed to show how brilliant and fabulous he was, and this was made obvious by the questions and answers in this very brief video.  The technique, the scripted faux interview, is meant to put forth an image he wants the public to see, but it wasn’t about the person but about the public persona he sought to create.

Second, that when the technology that fed him the words to present his carefully crafted responses to carefully crafted questions failed, he failed.

Craigie notes that lawyers don’t get this option. If we rely on technology, and it fails, we do not have the option of walking off-stage because our dog and pony show isn’t working the way we want.  And, Craigie notes, sometimes technology fails.

Concededly, one way to reduce the chances your technology will fail you is to rely on it less. Many trial lawyers still use overhead projectors because they’re almost fool-proof. Or they say they use them because they are almost fool-proof, but the real reason is they can’t be bothered to learn Powerpoint or Trial Director. Whatever their reasons, I have no quarrel with going old school, low-tech, if it conveys the message and wins the case. A good trial lawyer with nothing but an easel will do far better than a so-so lawyer with the most advanced technology available.

The worst that can happen when you use a yPad instead of an iPad is that your pen runs out of ink.  It’s easily accommodated, whether by carrying around extra pens or asking the court clerk to borrow one of the many on his desk.  But there is nothing that conveys a bad impression to everyone in the courtroom like trying to be too technologically slick and having it fail.

Watch the faces of jurors when a lawyer says, “oh, wait, something’s wrong,” as the program doesn’t run or the connection is lost.  Heads start to shake from side to side; no one feels sympathetic, and there’s a whiff of Schadenfreude in the air as the show-off got his.

The recurring message that’s lost is that technology is just a pen with a plug, a tool to be used to the extent it works.  It’s not your friend and doesn’t love you in the way you love it.  When the shiny toy works and makes you happy, great. When it doesn’t, then you suffer the consequences.

But Craigie brings up a point that warrants further discussion:

A good trial lawyer with nothing but an easel will do far better than a so-so lawyer with the most advanced technology available.

The sentence contains two parts, both of which are critical.  First, the most advanced technology available will not make you a better lawyer.  Those who have something shiny to sell keep insisting that their product will make you a better lawyer, enhance the quality of your work, your life and your physical desirability to the opposite sex (or same sex, if that’s your preference).  Tools can enhance the skill you already possess, but they are not a substitute for skill. They are merely a means of more effectively using the skill you have. No more. No less.

But then there’s the easel part of the sentence. An easel has no plug. No “on” button and no silicon chip. It’s a few sticks of wood or metal, held together in a way that allows it to display a chart or picture. It’s decidedly low tech. It’s been around for a long time. It works.

When a lawyer selects a tool, he doesn’t do so to fulfill his fantasy of what a cool trial lawyer he is.  He does so to serve a client, who depends on the lawyer to fulfill his function to the best of his ability.  When Michael Bay walked off stage, humiliating himself and being revealed as a phony whose carefully crafted public persona disintegrated with the failure of his technological crutch, the only person he hurt was himself.

Lawyers don’t have that luxury.  It’s not our freedom or fortune at risk in that room, but that of someone who relies on us.  When we fail, someone else suffers the consequences.  We do not have the right to let our client down because of our technological vanity.

I know how to make a powerpoint.  I have computers, a smartphone and even a tablet, though I have yet to figure out why.  The assumption that if I don’t genuflect at the altar of technology, I must be a Luddite, is totally wrong. I’m aware of the benefits. I’m aware of the limitations. I’m also aware of my responsibility to my client. Guess which matters most?


4 thoughts on “When Tech Fails

  1. Victor Medina

    I’m curious to know whether this will surprise you. I do an enormous amount of public speaking as part of my practice. To this day, the only tool that I bring for these presentations is a whiteboard. It’s the most effective, it gives me the most flexibility when I have to explain something, and dead simple to operate.

    Not all lawyers who enjoy shiny itoys kneel at the altar.

  2. william doriss

    Sure technology fails. We expect it to fail. It’s only for the moment, and we move on. Better luck next time?
    Sometimes cars fail to start. That is why we have AAA cards in our wallets. Lawyers (and judges) fail as well. We know in advance that some of them are going to fail us. We are not surprised. The only difference is that for some of us, it’s difficult to “move onward and upward” [when they fail us].
    Am I clearer today? No, the video was not “particcularly interesting to watch”. Thank god it was short.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, lawyers fail as well (if that was your point, then you are clearer today. If not, then no). Natural selection has not advanced sufficiently to make people infallible. It’s a flaw of the system.

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