What's Up, Doc-ket? N.Va. firm gets its day in court through high-tech animation
BY PAUL BRADLEY
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
ALEXANDRIA–At age 30, with a degree from Mary Washington College and a law degree from Widener College, Kenneth J. Lopez ought to be making like one of those young associates in a John Grisham novel, burning the midnight oil at a big-time law firm, climbing the ladder by burying himself in legal books.
So why is he at work in Alexandria, dressed not in a stiff blue suit and red power tie, but clad instead in comfortable khakis and a sweater over a T-shirt, sipping cocoa from a paper cup while taking a break from running his growing business? It all has to do with cartoons and computers. Well, not cartoons, exactly, but animation, the computer-generated kind that is intended to simplify the complex and clarify the incomprehensible.
Lopez, an Alexandria native, is chief executive officer of Animators at Law, a 3-year-old company that specializes in creating electronic presentations lawyers can use in court to make their cases.
"We have all the same equipment here that the Hollywood studios have in developing computer-generated animation, like 'Toy Story' or 'Terminator,' " he said. "We are visual advocates for our clients."
Animators at Law recently was honored by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, which gives an annual award to a city-based company for using and developing technology.
Lopez figures he is in the perfect spot to build a firm combining high technology with legal work. Northern Virginia is increasingly becoming a hub for tech companies. And just across the Potomac River, Washington is rife with lawyers of every stripe.
The company has been growing rapidly. Though he won't disclose figures, Lopez said that this year, the company already has exceeded its billings for all of 1998.
Animators at Law started with Lopez alone and now has 10 full-time workers, plus lawyers on retainer. It also hires temporary workers. Among its clients are major insurance companies, big law firms and several Fortune 500 companies, including several tobacco companies, which, of course, are involved in numerous legal fights.
Lopez said he stumbled across the idea for his company: Computer animation was a hobby that unexpectedly developed into a career.
"I guess I've always had a knack for it," he said. "In college, I picked up computer animation and I thought it was the greatest thing. In law school, it kind of dawned on me that lawyers might be able to use this."
He decided to go to work for a computer animation firm. He'd bring the company new business. The company would get a kind of work it did not do before. Clients would get a needed service. Everybody won.
Still, his parents, who financed his education, were not exactly thrilled with the idea.
"They thought I was nuts," he said. "But they let me live at home for another year until I got my feet on the ground."
Lopez decided to strike out on his own when he realized there was an untapped market. Computer-generated animation can be of use in numerous legal cases. It can re-create a traffic accident, for example. And according to the American Bar Association, jurors are more likely to retain information when oral arguments are combined with a visual presentation.
The first case Lopez was involved in was a medical malpractice dispute in Delaware. Jurors had rejected the claims of a plaintiff who complained a doctor botched what should have been a routine procedure. On appeal, computer animation was used to show what happened, and the initial decision was reversed.
"We come at this from an attack dog perspective," he said. This form of justice does not come cheaply. The company charges between $100 and $200 an hour. For complex cases, the bill can reach $10,000 and beyond.
Lopez also has competition in the animation field. Engineering Animation of Ames, Iowa, is a $10 million a year business offering animation services, and some law firms have their own in-house personnel specializing in animation.
It is doubtful, however, that those offices look like the digs occupied by Animators at Law near Old Town Alexandria. The warren of offices includes one occupied by young computer designers who have decorated their space with comic book action figures and posters. Rock music blares as they do their work.
Lopez said he hopes to take the firm public, perhaps in a couple of years, and is considering expansion into the New York area to be close to even more lawyers in need of visual assistance.
© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.