If there was ever a time to be thankful for technology, it is now. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, a majority of attorneys are finding themselves practicing social distancing, which means working remotely. Given our professions, many times court appearances, emergency motions, client meetings, and emergencies cannot wait. To be honest, I was skeptical of using technology for court appearances and hearings because I have been taught the value of in-person relationships and the power of in-person advocacy. However, after a call with Elizabeth Lippy from Trial Advocacy & Consulting, my mind was quickly changed. Our clients trust us to make sure we are capable of assisting them with their legal problems, and given our current circumstances, attorneys need to make sure we are able to rise to that occasion.
That being said, many courts (Collin County being one of the leading counties on this front) have begun to conduct their hearings via a platform called Zoom. To ensure we are fully capable of representing our clients in whatever platform is necessary, I dug into Zoom to make sure I was prepared to use it as an advocacy platform should the need arise. Here are some tips that should help you get started.
Creating an account
Aside from Zoom being user friendly and intuitive, the great thing about Zoom is that it’s free—for three people for up to 40 minutes. If you need more people on a call or need more than 40 minutes, you will need to pay for a plan. Even if you do need to pay for a plan, the cost is minimal: $14.99, which gets you up to 100 participants and 24-hour time limit per call (which I hope you don’t need for a hearing). To sign up for an account, you simply enter your email address and then Zoom sends you a link to verify and you are in. Once you have an account, you log in to Zoom and you are usually immediately logged in to your profile. This is where you can see the details of your account, including your personal meeting ID. You can now go in and change your profile picture and manage your account to do more advanced things (once you are proficient and ready to advance).
Pro Tip: Pin the Zoom icon/app onto your desktop for easy access.
So now you are logged in and ready to go. If you are scheduling the meeting, at the top of the Zoom screen, there is a link to “Schedule a Meeting.” Click on that link and begin to enter the details for your meeting. As mentioned, Zoom is pretty intuitive, so filling in the details of your Zoom meeting is similar to creating a calendar invite. The nice thing about Zoom is you can make it audio only or you can make it video as well. If you want video, make sure you turn on video for the host and participant. For the audio selection, I recommend keeping both clicked on so people using their computer can have the sound capability from their computers as well.
Pro Tip: If you want to mute participants upon entry so you don’t have endless chatter and lots of distractions, click that option. You can also record the meeting on your computer if you want to make sure you have a record of the call. While Texas is a one-party state, I would make sure to let the participants know that you are recording them as a courtesy. If you are setting up a meeting with a judge, I would absolutely ask permission before recording the conference as many judges have local rules and policies on recording their proceedings outside a court reporter. If you want a court reporter, you can also invite your court reporter so he or she can make an official record of the hearing/meeting/conference.
Next, click “Save” to create the meeting. The meeting is now saved and ready to share. To invite other people, copy and paste the “Join URL” and send it to other participants. I would suggest including this information in a calendar invite so people aren’t searching for the meeting information.
Participating in a Meeting
If someone is scheduling a meeting and inviting you, he or she will send you a link to join the call or send you a meeting ID. At the top of the Zoom screen, click on the “Join a Meeting” link, enter the meeting ID, and click “Join.” You should then be directed into the meeting space.
Starting the Meeting
To access meetings that you have created, click on the link called “Meetings” on the left-hand side of the screen and you will see all of the meetings you have scheduled. You can use this link to edit your meeting, add the meeting to your calendar, and to share the meeting with other people (remember the three-person limit for a free account).
When it is time for the meeting, click “Start this Meeting.” Follow the prompts to run from a browser or download and run Zoom. You will be asked if you want to join audio—click that selection to hear others and participate.
Tips for Conducting a Hearing on Zoom
Enter the conference early and make sure that everything is working properly and the features are set up to your preference—just as you would arrive early at a new courtroom to check on things and make sure you are good to go.
If you are going to have witnesses, including your client, present, you need the pro version of Zoom to invite them to participate in the hearing because there is a limit on the number of people allowed on a Zoom session under the free version. Invite witnesses and clients to the session just like any other participant (as detailed above).
The easiest way to share documents with the group is through the chat feature. There are more advanced ways, but on a basic level, the best way is to use the chat feature. I would recommend having all of your exhibits ready to go in a folder saved to your desktop. If you have your exhibit stickers added on, that would make it best for everyone present to identify the documents and keep a clear record. I would also recommend emailing your exhibits to the court beforehand, so the court is able to maintain a clear record. Once you have your documents ready to go, click on the chat icon on the bottom middle right of the Zoom screen and a chat feature will be populated on the right side. On the bottom right of that chat feature is a file icon where you can upload a document and everyone on the chat can then see the document. You can proceed as though you are tendering to the court.
Pro Tip: There is an option at the bottom of your home Zoom page to screen share when on a conference call to facilitate the exchange of information and documents. As an attorney, I don’t recommend using the screen share feature because I often have chats and emails coming through on my desktop.
It is frustrating to be on a call/conference/chat with background noise because someone did not hit mute. Zoom allows you to mute everyone. To mute everyone on a call, go to the three-dot icon on the bottom right that says “More.” Then click on “Manage Participants” and click “Mute All.” You will then be prompted to either allow or not allow participants to unmute themselves.
Turn Off Video
If you don’t want to be seen on a conference call, simply click the “Start Video/Stop Video” icon on the bottom left-hand corner.
Ensuring Uniform Views
When everyone first logs on, ask them to go to their video settings (the up arrow to the right of the video camera icon) and click the box that says “Hide Non-Video Participants.” If everyone does this and your hearing requires the questioning of witnesses, this ensures that everyone does not have to see all of the Zoom participants on their screen. Similarly, if you click “Speaker View” in the top right corner, the person speaking will be the larger screen in the middle.
It is nice to have a softening effect to your video. Under “Settings,” go to “Video” and click the box for “Touch Up My Appearance,” which adds a nice “Pretty Filter” to help out with those blemishes.
Pick a Professional Background
When logged in to Zoom, you will see on the bottom right-hand corner of the screen an icon that looks like a video camera and next to the icon a little carrot arrow pointing up. Click on the carrot arrow and select “Choose Virtual Background.” You can then visit a free background website like unsplash.com and download a free background. This way, it looks like you are in a professional background when you are really in your dining room or home office.
Speaking with your client offline
Once you get proficient at Zoom, there is a capability to use breakout rooms; however, on a very basic level, I would recommend setting up a different call with a client or session with your client to have offline conversations.
Practice makes perfect
Practice! It is going to take some time getting used to speaking into a computer monitor and looking at the right spot for the camera. Try it out with a colleague or by yourself in a practice session. We can do this. Attorneys are trained to think on our feet and adapt.
Sally Pretorius is a shareholder at KoonsFuller Family Law in Dallas. Her practice focuses on divorce, complex property division, child custody litigation, and child support matters. She is certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and has received many notable accolades.