“Ok, we are on the record. Please proceed. Counsel?”
The balding, stern-faced judge stares down at me from his bench, framed by flags to either side of him, a judicial seal on the wall behind him.
I look to my left and see the jury box, filled with six jurors, all men, one Black, some motionless, others appearing to nod or fidget.
The courtroom feels cavernous. Light streams in from windows on one side. I realize I am at a podium, on which a small mic is mounted. On either side of me are counsel tables, but with no one sitting at them, sheets of paper and a bottle of water the only signs of their use. I turn fully around and see that all the courtroom’s church-like benches are empty.
It is just the judge, the jury and me.
And my hands. The seem so big. I reach with them to grab the sides of the podium, but they move through it, unable to physically engage. Probably for the better, as I was told long ago never to hold the podium like a crutch.
“May it please the court,” I begin. “Honorable members of the jury. We are here today …”
As I speak, some members of the jury seem to be nodding, as if in acknowledgement of what I am saying, but others seem not to move at all. None of them seem to be looking at me, more like just past me. The judge nods, but it looks like a nod of impatience, not of listening.
I gesture with my hands, but their size makes me self-conscious. I try to walk away from the podium, but when I move too far, a cage of red laser lights appears and prevents me from moving any farther.
That’s it, I think, and I point to and click on a giant hovering button that says Stop Record.
Now I click Play, and as if in an out-of-body experience, I find myself standing next to myself, the avatar-me at a podium, his hands moving awkwardly, his head turning this way and that as if trying to get his bearings.
Click another button, and I see myself from the perspective of the judge. Click again, and I see myself from the perspective of the jurors. More clicks, and I see how I appeared from the counsel table or the witness stand.
I again hear the judge asking me to begin, and this time I hear my tentative voice, “May it please the court …” I realize I must do better next time, must keep my face focused on the judge and jury, must move my hands more smoothly, must stand more confidently.
Fortunately for me, there will be a next time. There will be as many times as I want. Because this is not a real courtroom with a real judge and a real jury. It was a virtual reality courtroom, in which the goggles I wore and controllers I held made me feel immersed.
It did not feel real. But it felt much closer to real than if I had been simply standing in my office, trying to imagine it all.
Using VR to Train Lawyers
My trip into VR court came courtesy of a new company, JUST, which has developed a VR-powered training program to help lawyers and law students learn courtroom presentation skills.
The company was founded by William L. Smith, a Boise, Idaho, personal injury lawyer. As the pandemic took hold last year and trial dates disappeared, Smith became concerned about how younger attorneys in his firm would obtain courtroom experience.
Smith connected with Dennis Shewmaker, a VR developer since 1996 and founder of the Eagle, Idaho, company Funnel 33, which creates VR experiences for large-scale events. No sooner did Smith and Shewmaker speak than they agreed to launch JUST.
After several months of development, they have now launched their product, which they describe as “the next best thing to being in the courtroom.”
Last month, the company was accepted to participate in this year’s Batch #4 cohort of the Legal Tech Hub Vienna accelerator program.
Multi-Player Coming Soon
As it now stands, JUST is for a single user, who can enter the virtual courtroom and record and playback presentations, in order to practice and refine presentation skills.
The next development phase will enable multi-player use. The company says this will be useful for lawyers to practice questioning witnesses or preparing witnesses for depositions and trials. Smith says he expects to release this by the end of this month.
Smith says that some mediators are also planning to use it to conduct virtual mediations, in which everyone in the mediation would participate through an avatar.
Smith says VR mediations would be more effective than Zoom mediations because, once a participant dons the VR headset, he or she will be shut off from phone and computer distractions.
The company has not yet set a price for its product. It has several pilot customers testing the product and will use their feedback to help settle on pricing.
The company has taken no outside investment, but is actively beginning to look for investors, Smith said.
Other VR Courtroom Products
My searches for other products that use VR to teach courtroom skills did not uncover many.
In 2019, the Bar Association of San Francisco and Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab partnered to present a series of short VR video training programs to assist in training pro bono attorneys. A Law360 article from 2019 described the program and blog posts from the A2J Lab and the San Francisco bar previewed it, but I cannot determine if it is sill in use.
I also came across a series of VR videos developed in 2017 by the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to provide courtroom training for lawyers. These are 360-degree courtroom videos of specific types of hearings.
JUST sent me a VR headset with its courtroom simulation program preloaded. They then scheduled a training session via Zoom to get me up and running on it.
If you have played around with VR before, you may not even need the training session. Once you’re in the virtual courtroom, the environment is fairly intuitive. You can record and play back presentations, make some changes to your avatar, and even change your position within the courtroom to see yourself from different perspectives.
The program as I tested it had a gender issue, in that none of the available lawyer avatars were women, none of the jurors were women, and the judge was male. In an email, Smith told me that the program has since been updated to add women avatars.
The strength of the product comes from the immersive nature of VR. Once you put on that headset and the judge asks you to begin, you feel as if you are in front of an actual audience, even though you are fully aware of the artifice, and even though the judge and jurors come across as Disney animatronics.
The playback provides actionable feedback. Even though you see your voice coming from an avatar, it is your voice you are hearing, with all its ums and ahs and stumbles, and it is your sometimes-awkward body language that you are viewing.
The ability to view yourself from multiple perspectives — the bench, the juror box, the witness box, the counsel table — gives a surprisingly real sense of how you are projecting. Maybe avatars cannot make true eye contact, but you can clearly see whether you are at least trying to connect with the judge and jurors.
Even before the pandemic, the numbers of cases that go to trial had been dropping, reducing opportunities for newer lawyer to get experience in the courtroom. JUST may be just what these newer lawyers need to at least get a sense of standing before a judge and a jury.