Recording justice: Videographers play a growing role in our legal system
Special to The Seattle Times
Forget about "The People's Court" and "Judge Judy."
Cameras and computers for today's courtrooms go far beyond these ratings-grabbing TV shows.
From recording depositions and wills to producing "day-in-the-life" documentaries for proving damages, work in the not-so-glamorous field is attracting growing numbers of legal videographers.
They are "sprouting up like mushrooms," says Chris Hazelmann, president of ProVideo/Seattle, one of the state's leading legal videography companies. "It's not real difficult to get in at a certain level."
"We use them quite regularly," says Seattle attorney Ron Perey, who specializes in medical malpractice.
By blending skills in videography, production and editing, computers and a solid understanding of court and trial requirements, legal videographers provide services popular throughout the justice system.
Judges typically like legal videography because it "speeds up litigation and the courtroom process," says Michael DeCheser, director of the New Jersey-based National Legal Video Association. The video work can lead to pretrial settlements, attorneys say.
Legal videographers often are embraced by attorneys because they can help present a more compelling case, and can save law firms thousands of dollars and days worth of time in taking depositions.
And jurors — many of them raised on flashy, quick information on television — DeCheser added, appreciate these services because they're more likely to understand visual high-tech presentations using such things as PowerPoint graphics.
But this is not a profession filled with regular Perry Mason moments, cautioned Hazelmann.
Legal videographers may be asked to shoot incident scenes, videotape wills, photograph evidence of insurance fraud, produce documentaries to expedite settlements, or create "day-in-the-life" documentaries for plaintiffs attempting to show pain and suffering when seeking damages after an injury or accident.
"People might want to get in for the glamour factor, but there's a lot more work than glamour — especially in the legal environment," says Hazelmann.
From a technical standpoint, Hazelmann says, deposition recording — the bread and butter of the industry — is "as far away from glamour and creativity as you can get. It's fair and unbiased. The variety of the work comes in the different places you work. You get to work in some of the top real estate of the city. You might be in a big high-rise on a clear day, and stuck in a oversized closet taking a doctor's deposition the next."
"We are not really in the video profession," says Hazelmann. "We are in the litigation industry, using tools and video cameras to improve communication so attorneys can do a better job of getting their point across."
When hiring legal videographers, Hazelmann says he needs to "make sure they know they're in a legal profession first — they just happen to be using a video camera.
"We're dealing with legal testimonies, confidential information. We have a responsibility to maintain a chain of custody with legal information that's authentic and validated. I can't afford to hire someone who's just in it while they're waiting for their big screenplay to be picked up."
It's unclear exactly how many legal videographers are working in the field, in part because courts don't require certification for this work.
The National Legal Video Association reports at least 1,000 individual members nationwide, and six member companies in Washington state. While there are dozens of videographers in local telephone listings, there's no breakdown for legal videographers.
Still, local and national experts predict the field will continue to grow.
"I've seen this business double every year for the last three years," DeCheser says. "Legal videography will continue to grow as long as the number of lawsuits grows and as long as the number of attorneys continues to grow."
While small to mid-size companies perform half of the legal videography work, one- or two-person operations perform the rest, DeCheser says.
What earns ongoing business and professional respect, DeCheser says, is flawless performance and a wide range of services. One mistake can get an expensive case tossed out of court.
That's why Hazelmann says there are specific qualities he looks for when hiring new employees.
"You need to be conscientious. You need attention to detail. We are in the legal profession and you must always be dotting your i's and crossing your t's," he says.
Legal videographers also need a thorough understanding of Rule 30 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure — the courts' requirement for what is acceptable in videotaped evidence.
That's why some locals, including longtime documentary-maker and new legal videographer Liz Latham of Ballard, are turning to the Wyoming-based American Guild of Court Videographers for training and certification. The course teaches skilled videographers the fine points of these legal rules. A three-day seminar course costs $695; a home-study course runs about $400.
For deposition services, local videographers typically charge $90 to $125 an hour; two-hour or half-day minimums are common.
"This is because you're not only bringing your experience, but you're bringing your equipment, which can run $10,000 to $20,000," says Latham.
Before investing in expensive equipment, Latham suggests people interested in the field work alongside somebody as "sort of an understudy."
Latham shadowed a Chicago videographer before embarking on her career.
"You learn so much. You see the mistakes. You see the procedures. You gain experience."