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Videoconference Legal Consultations May Be Just as Satisfying to Defendants as In-Person Consultations

Forensic Training AcademyVideoconference consultation between attorneys and clients yields similar client (criminal defendant) satisfaction to traditional in-person consultation. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

 

Psychology, Public Policy and LawThe Attorney-Client Working Relationship: A Comparison of In-Person Versus Videoconferencing Modalities | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2016, Advance Online Publication

 

The Attorney-Client Working Relationship: A Comparison of In-Person Versus Videoconferencing Modalities

 

Authors

Brendan R. McDonald and Robert D. Morgan, Texas Tech University
Patrick S. Metze, Texas Tech University School of Law

Abstract

The current study compared criminal defendants’ perceptions of attorney-client working relationship variables across in-person and videoconferencing consultation modalities. Defendants participated in pre-trial consultations with their defense attorneys either in-person (n = 22) or via videoconference (n = 21) and then completed a series of measures assessing their perceptions of working alliance, trust, procedural fairness, and satisfaction with attorney services. Results of a series of multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVA) procedures, independent samples t-tests, and Mann-Whitney U tests revealed no significant between-group differences in defendants’ ratings of each of these variables. In addition, estimates of effect size indicated generally small experimental effects. Examination of descriptive and frequency statistics indicated defendants provided positive ratings of videoconference consultations. These findings are considered to be preliminary given the methodological limitations of this study; however, results suggested that core components of the attorney-client working relationship were not significantly altered with the use of videoconferencing. Furthermore, results suggested defendants found videoconferencing to be an acceptable medium for facilitating attorney-client pre-trial consultations. These results are consistent with research findings regarding the acceptability of correctional telehealth and telemental health services, and extend this research to the domain of attorney-client consultations. Implications for legal practice and policy are discussed, as is the need for further research in this area.

Keywords

attorney-client relationship, pre-trial consultations, videoconference, working alliance, defense attorneys

Summary of the Research

“Videoconferencing technology has gained popularity in the criminal justice system because it offers numerous advantages to courts and correctional institutions, service providers, and recipients of services. It is a time-efficient and cost-effective mode of service delivery which has proven to reduce the costs of services provided to inmates. Through videoconferencing, services are rendered in real time and providers are allotted more control in managing their schedules. In judicial settings, videoconferencing allows for increased efficiency as cases are processed in a timely manner. Furthermore, many costs associated with time and travel are defrayed with the use of videoconferencing. Other benefits of videoconferencing are that it enhances safety and security by eliminating risks associated with prisoner transport and improves staff’s responses to emergencies. Finally, this technology increases access to quality medical, mental health, and forensic services in remote locations which might otherwise go underserved” (p. 1-2).

“Despite increased utilization of videoconferencing for various purposes within the criminal justice system, the effect of this technology on attorney-client consultations has yet to be empirically tested. Consequently, little is known regarding how this technology may impact attorney-client relational dynamics… The purpose of the current study was to gain a better understanding of the extent to which videoconferencing technology influences elements of the attorney-client working relationship during pretrial consultations. Specifically, we tested whether or not defendants’ perceptions of working alliance, and satisfaction with attorney services differed significantly between in-person and videoconferencing modalities” (p. 2).

The current study utilized 43 criminal defendants referred to a public defender clinic over the course of two years, and examined a videoconference groups and an in-person group.  “All attorney-client consultations adhered to a semistructured format which consisted of the following: (a) explanations of the criminal charge(s), possible punishments, and lasting consequences resulting from a conviction; (b) information regarding the defendants’ constitutional rights; (c) information regarding each phase of the criminal adjudicative process; (d) discussion of possible dispositional outcomes (e.g., probation, incarceration, length of sentence) and plea bargaining options; (e) an examination of the facts of the case; and (f) a preliminary plan for the defense. Attorneys’ professional status, demographic characteristics, and duration of consultation were tracked for purposes of between- groups equivalency testing. Attorneys also rated the quality of the consultation based on the extent to which each of the above criteria were addressed with the defendants” (p. 3).

“As hypothesized, there were no significant (p < .20) between-groups differences in defendants’ ratings of working alliance, trust in their attorneys, procedural fairness, or satisfaction with attorney services across modes of attorney-client consultation. Furthermore, analyses of effect size demonstrated small between-groups effects for nearly all dependent variables. In other words, defendants consulting with their attorneys via videoconference reported grossly equivalent levels of working alliance, trust, procedural fairness, and satisfaction to those consulting with their attorneys in person. These preliminary results are consistent with a growing body of literature indicating that the quality of professional services delivered via videoconference is no better or worse than services delivered in person” (p. 7).

Translating Research into Practice

“This finding has been replicated across various domains including correctional telehealth/telemental health care and forensic services. Findings from the current study extend this research to the domain of attorney-client consultations. Results provided preliminary support for defendants’ approval of videoconferencing services. Clients’ ratings of the quality of attorney services delivered via videoconference ranged from “OK” to “excellent.” The majority of clients surveyed gave positive ratings of audio and visual quality, believed videoconference services were equivalent or superior to services delivered in person, reported they would be likely to participate in videoconference consultations again, and indicated they would be inclined to recommend videoconference consultations to their peers. These findings may alleviate concerns raised by some legal scholars that using videoconferencing to facilitate attorney-client interactions undermines the attorney-client working relationship. Based on the preliminary results of this study, defense attorneys may feel more confident that their clients are comfortable and willing to engage with counsel via videoconference” (p. 7).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“It should be noted that implementation of videoconferencing services is not without its share of flaws. Two of the common criticisms of the use of videoconferencing are technological difficulties and privacy concerns. In the current study, there were equipment malfunctions that resulted in the loss of data in the videoconference condition (n = 5). When this occurred, defendants consulted with their attorneys telephonically and such data could not be used in this study. Although participants provided positive ratings of audio and visual quality, these ratings did not account for defendants whose videoconference consultations were cancelled due to equipment failure. With regard to privacy concerns, the current study did not measure these directly. Results do suggest that if such concerns were present, they did not manifest as reductions in working alliance, trust, procedural fairness, or satisfaction. However, this does not rule out the possibility of privacy concerns in the current sample. With this in mind, attorneys should take steps to minimize technological difficulties and maximize privacy when implementing videoconferencing services” (p. 8).

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Marissa Zappala

Marissa Zappala is currently a second-year Master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her main research interests include cognitive biases, forensic assessment, and evaluator training and education. Following her Master’s, Marissa plans to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and an eventual career in psychological assessment.

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