Professor introduces law students to paperless trials


 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
Perry Mason would have gawked at the sight of huge plasma screens descending out of the courtroom ceiling in front of the jury box, instantly displaying the exact document, page, line, or word important for jurors to consider.

Bonnie Kipp – a certified trainer on electronic evidence presentation software and instrumental in creating the first federal electronic courtroom in Michigan – guides law students through this new legal landscape in “Technology Enhanced Trial Advocacy” at Michigan State University College of Law’s Trial Practice Institute.

While learning the software is the primary focus, her course also covers basic courtroom components and pros and cons of using each piece of equipment: such as when it might be advisable to use an evidence camera to display an exhibit as opposed to using a laptop with digitized evidence; and the proper use of an annotation monitor and how best to direct a witness’s use of it.

“I have many examples from our trials that I share with the students – not only from the perspective of the juries that I managed, but also from the court’s perspective of seeing what was effective and what could only be classified as technology failures,” she says. 

Currently, Kipp and her students are beta-testing TDNotebook, a new cloud-based evidence management program being developed by InData Corporation, and set for official release in January. “It’s exciting to be part of continuing new developments in the field,” she says.

Her law students are using their newly acquired electronic evidence presentation skills to give them an edge when interviewing at litigation firms and/or to impress new employers by running the technology during trials. 

“I had one student who was in the midst of an internship with a firm during the same time she was taking my class and was asked to prepare a case for electronic presentation at trial – a rare opportunity for a law student,” Kipp says. 

When Kipp started in the legal profession at the age of 16, there were no such fancy tech gadgets. Her first job, through the cooperative extension program at her high school, was at the 52-3 District Court in Rochester. After four years as a deputy clerk, she went on to spend two decades as a paralegal for Otis M. Underwood Jr., a sole practitioner in Oakland County. 

After moving to Williamston in 1998, she became case manager/courtroom deputy for Judge David McKeague in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan; and when McKeague was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2005, she became his judicial assistant.

In 2003, McKeague’s courtroom became the first federal electronic courtroom in Michigan, wired for electronic evidence presentation. 

“It was exciting to be part of this cutting edge technology – the paperless trial! No more waiting in silence during trials as jurors fumbled to get heavy notebooks of exhibits on their laps, then waiting for them to find the right document, the correct page, and the pertinent paragraph,” Kipp says. “It quickly became apparent that electronic evidence presentation – cutting trial time by approximately 50 percent in most cases – was here to stay.”

It also was quickly apparent that attorneys presenting cases electronically needed help in the logistics of using the courtroom system, as well as in the mechanics required for using their newly purchased evidence presentation software. 

And so, in 2004, the court sent Kipp to Phoenix to learn electronic evidence presentation software and to become certified to train others – and from that point on, McKeague required all his trials to be presented electronically. Since 2004, the two have instructed nearly 1,000 lawyers in the use of digitized evidence in the courtroom.

Nearly 40 jury trials were tried electronically during Kipp’s tenure with the U.S. District Court; prior to trials, she would work with the attorneys – and, in some cases, vendors hired by the attorneys – to familiarize themselves with the courtroom components, making sure they were ready for this new and innovative way of trial presentation. 

 One of the first attorneys to present his case electronically didn’t even own a laptop, much less the required software and necessary tech expertise. “But not only did he manage the electronic trial effectively, the jury awarded a substantial judgment in favor of his client, which he credited, in part, to the streamlined, organized way of presenting his exhibits during the trial,” Kipp says.

While McKeague’s courtroom was undergoing high-tech renovation, he and his team decamped to the moot courtroom at MSU Law. 

“It was quite a process to bring all the cases files, parties – including prisoners in shackles – exhibits, witnesses, court reporters, and more into a law school, but the students were able to observe federal court proceedings, and the court was appreciative of having a courtroom to use,” Kipp says.

The use of temporary courtroom “digs” wasn’t without speed bumps. Once, when bringing an open rolling cart stacked with case files and miscellaneous supplies from the home chambers, Kipp found a parking structure elevator non-functional. Gingerly maneuvering her cart down concrete steps, her unprotected laptop – bungee-corded to the top of the stack – came loose and went tumbling end over end. 

“Chasing after it, I must have looked like a crazed woman because not only did it fall the entire flight of stairs, it bounced a perfect 90-degree turn at the bottom, and continued down the next flight, eventually falling through an opening and landing on the basement floor of the parking garage,” Kipp says with a rueful smile. “By the time I reached it, the laptop was in several pieces, and as I picked up the now unidentifiable electronic mess off the basement floor, I formed a mantra that I teach to my students to this day: Always have a Plan B!”

During the months of using the MSU Law moot courtroom, McKeague’s team became involved in the development plans for renovating it into a fully functional electronic courtroom. McKeague and Kipp were frequent guest lecturers in the Trial Practice Institute on the use of electronic evidence presentation; and in 2005 the TPI added a seven-week “Technology Enhanced Trial Advocacy” class to the required curriculum, with InData Corporation providing students with a full license to use TrialDirector software on their personal laptops during their time in law school. 

“I’ve been teaching this course every year since its inception and absolutely love it,” Kipp says. 

Kipp continues to be involved in the development of technological advances in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and has served as a chambers’ advisor for the development of appellate CM/ECF (Case
Management/Electronic Case Filing), both on a national level as the software was being developed, and in the Sixth Circuit as the court implemented the software and adopted the use of electronic case filing.
In her leisure time, Kipp enjoys a wide variety of hobbies, interests, and volunteer activities – none of which involve technology. She recently completed a 13-year commitment as Children’s Choir Director at her church, is an active hospice volunteer, and delivers meals through Lansing’s Meals on Wheels program. 

“My latest personal endeavor has been learning how to play the hammered dulcimer, which I sometimes take with me to hospice visits, but mostly just enjoy playing for my own personal pleasure,” she says. 
But her favorite pastime – as time and money allow – is visiting her grandchildren who live in Virginia, Connecticut, and in her hometown of Williamston.