Nov. 18, 2015 – Legal innovation is really about one thing: Providing better service more efficiently.
That may mean working smarter, using new technologies, or, in the case of criminal defense attorney Syovata Edari, helping clients more effectively tell their side of the story.
“One of the things that I’ve incorporated into my practice is the use of audio/visual tools at sentencing,” says Edari, one of ten 2014 Wisconsin Legal Innovators featured in Wisconsin Lawyer magazine. She spoke with Tom Watson of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. and a member of the State Bar committee that selected the legal innovators.
For Edari, using multimedia tools to tell client stories helps to shine a light on their basic humanity. And while this doesn’t justify illegal behavior, it may help people to better understand a defendant’s actions.
“I go into clients' homes, I video tape their families – looking at pictures on the mantel of when they were babies – and it just humanizes them.”
Meet Wisconsin’s Legal Innovators
Who are Wisconsin’s innovators? Meet these movers and shakers – and learn what drove them to put new ideas to work to solve problems and improve the delivery of legal services to their clients and communities.
“That’s a Fine Idea! Meet Wisconsin’s Legal Innovators,” Wisconsin Lawyer, November 2015
Of course, there are those who criticize this approach, saying it attempts to appeal to people’s emotions. To which, Edari simply says “Well, yeah, we are.”
“This is an emotional process and these are humans who are going to be possibly serving very long periods of time in prison. I think a lot of judges and even a lot of my opponents want to know, ‘Who is this person behind these criminal charges and behind the conduct?’”
So how effective are the videos?
“I had an assistant United States attorney actually join me in a recommendation for probation, where he was previously recommending that the client go to prison for five years,” says Edari in one example. “The judge agreed after seeing the video to put the person on probation.”
And while the videos are not something you can use at trial, since criminal defense lawyers often end up at sentencing, “it’s becoming more and more critical for us to develop new ways of developing mitigation strategies for our clients.”
One of the key benefits of the videos, says Edari, is simply allowing clients to speak for themselves.
“Interviewing the client, having them explain their circumstances outside of the courtroom, is very effective.”
This is because, in the courtroom, “as lawyers we end up saying a lot of the same things for every single client,” says Edari. “So I think it’s a very good technique to allow the client to really be able to tell their story.”
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While Edari has had success using video at sentencing hearings, she cautions that it’s not something that every case warrants. Being innovative demands staying flexible.
“You also have to be careful of over-using certain techniques. I do the videos rarely – I might do them once a year in a compelling case where there’s very high stakes, but there’s a good reason to deviate from what might be the norm for sentencing in that case.”
Beyond innovating with multimedia, Edari also works with clients to do elocution pleadings at sentencing. “I give them basically an essay exam where they’re writing in their own words responses to certain questions like, ‘What was your life like as a child?’”
This client-centered approach has the benefit of illuminating their lives in ways that may come as a surprise even to their attorney, says Edari. “You let the client tell the story, and even as a lawyer sometimes I’m like, ‘wow, I didn’t even know this until I read their writing in their own words.’”
Importantly, with this shift toward a more client-centered practice, lawyers should know that there is an increasing demand for change, says Edari.
“We have to start, I think, letting our clients’ stories shine.” However, the results often speak for themselves.
Change Can Be Hard. Do It Anyway
Change can be difficult, even for innovators like Edari. But her reluctance gave way once she experienced the benefits.
“I’m a creature of habit. I think lawyers, and in particular litigators, tend to be kind of rigid. We don’t like change.”
However, says Edari, once lawyers get beyond the learning-curve of doing something new, and “you see the results, and you see how it draws more business to you, and you see how it’s in your client’s best interests, you won’t go back.”
She speaks from experience.
“There was a time when … I’d write briefs on paper and transcribe it [on computer]. When I was in eastern Washington, my boss there instituted a rule where our whole office had to be paperless. And I was very resistant to that until I had my first trial in that district which I did entire from my iPad. And since then I won’t do it any other way.”
“Once you learn to do it, to get over that initial resistance, the fear of the unknown, it’s hard to go back because it is so much more efficient and the nature of our practice, of the world that we are in, it’s inevitable.”