Long-Distance Law: Just the Fax, Sir
Harvard law professor helps run Simpson defense team in L.A. from his black swivel chair in Cambridge, Mass.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — ON the morning of an important trial, most lawyers spend a few minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, striking courtroom poses. The attorney of tomorrow, however, might be better off learning to juggle a fax, a laptop, and a couple of TV sets at the same time.
Since the O.J. Simpson trial began in Los Angeles, Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor and a member of Mr. Simpson's defense team, has been raising objections and challenging witnesses from a black swivel chair at his office in Cambridge, Mass.
Here, he monitors the trial on two television sets: one tuned to CNN, the other to Court TV. Whenever Professor Dershowitz wants to raise a point, he faxes a hastily typed memo to lead attorney Johnnie Cochran. Thirty seconds later, it putters out of the fax machine on the defense counsel's table, 3,000 miles away.
Dershowitz says such ''virtual representation'' will be one of the next great trends in the practice of law -- though critics decry it as just another tool of the wealthy.
''This is the first trial of the 21st century in some respects,'' he says. ''Having a lawyer outside the courtroom monitoring the case who has quick access to research is the wave of the future. I think more big law firms with complex litigation are going to move to this model.''
The reasons, he says, are twofold: It benefits the clients and allows teams of attorneys to use their time more efficiently.
''Watch how the lawyers sit in court,'' Dershowitz says, pointing to his colleagues on the TV screen. ''Most of them are just sitting there, they can't write or do research. If something comes up, they can't just bolt out and run upstairs to the library.''
On several occasions, Dershowitz says, trial Judge Lance Ito has granted a motion he has proposed via fax. ''With the machines here in my office, I feel like I am virtually in the courtroom, like I can lean over and whisper to my co-counsel. In fact, it's easier to whisper from here to there than it is to do it at the bench.''
Dershowitz says he can discuss a legal question with his assistant, Michael Schneider, and formulate a ''cyberobjection'' without worrying about being overheard or disrupting the proceedings.
Another advantage, he says, is that his office has become a conduit for advice from others watching the trial. ''We're getting tips all the time,'' he says. ''Dozens of people call in every day with ideas, and some of them are very useful.''
For example, Dershowitz notes that during a discussion of Simpson's physical condition, prosecutors pointed to a videotape in which the ex-tailback lifted his six-year-old son, Justin. After a witness testified that Justin weighed about 75 pounds, Dershowitz says he received numerous calls from parents who told him that the average six-year-old weighs much less.
But perhaps the best advantage of lawyering in absentia, Dershowitz says, is that in addition to his role in the Simpson case, he can continue to teach criminal law at Harvard three days a week, write a syndicated column, and give lectures. There are also, of course, his ubiquitous TV appearances.
In a typical day, Dershowitz says he speaks to O.J. in the morning, teaches his 11 o'clock class, then watches the trial briefly before lunch. Depending on how controversial the witnesses are, he says he either stays at the office, or goes home to watch the proceedings while jogging on his treadmill.
On this day, testimony centers around the timing of events, an issue that Dershowitz is not particularly concerned with. ''I don't feel an obligation to watch every minute of the case,'' he says. ''Sometimes I'll just put a tape in.''
Still, Dershowitz's mode of representation is not above controversy. Some analysts say allowing such arrangements gives defendants with deep pockets an unfair advantage. Richard Chused, a professor of legal history at Georgetown University in Washington, says the only way most trials could be beamed to a location outside the courtroom is through closed-circuit television, a service few courts are likely to pay for.
''This is extremely expensive,'' Professor Chused says. ''Most people in ordinary cases confront the justice system in small claims, traffic, landlord-tenant, or criminal court where there's no room for fancy stuff. This is just another trick that money buys.''
One former prosecutor, who requested anonymity, asks: ''Is having Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey, and Alan Dershowitz on your side an unfair advantage? The old saying goes that rich guys don't go to jail. Maybe now it's because rich guys can buy the technology.''
Chused adds that while Dershowitz's method may be a first, technology has already begun to alter the legal process, especially in pre-trial hearings. Here, he says, some evidence is already being submitted and displayed electronically, and testimonies are delivered on tape or through teleconferencing.
Some courts, he says, are beginning to accept filings by fax and computer, and some courtrooms provide phone jacks that allow attorneys to access law databases during the trial. Yet Chused argues that few defendants, especially those using state-provided legal-aid services, can afford such sophisticated technology.
''To say this is the wave of the future is also a class-oriented statement,'' he says. ''It shows the kind of clients Mr. Dershowitz has a habit of representing.''
In his wood-paneled office, Dershowitz bustles through piles of papers and stacks of books. His walls are a paean to his own work. There is a sketch of him defending Woody Allen, an autographed photo of another client, Mike Tyson, and a framed New York Post headline of his successful defense of socialite Claus Von Bulow.
While virtual lawyering helps him keep a hand in the courtroom, Dershowitz says, in characteristic Dershowitz fashion, it does create some inconveniences: Last week, his secretary had to page him at a restaurant to tell him that Mr. Cochran had just asked Judge Ito for a recess so he could ''call Professor Dershowitz.''