A year ago we all knew about videoconferencing, and some of us used it for our practice. Many (most) did not. The use of videoconferencing as a practice tool for attorneys had started growing more common several years ago but grew at a relatively slow rate. Then, along came COVID-19, aka the pandemic. And once that hit, the world changed for almost everyone in many ways. In this article, we will not endeavor to explore all the ways, personal and professional, that the pandemic has impacted our lives. Everyone reading it lived through the same pandemic. It likely impacted each of us in a somewhat different way, but some things evolved as constants. Videoconferencing, the focal point of this article, was one of those things.
Almost immediately after we started locking down our cities, states, and businesses, we started dramatically increasing our use of and dependence on videoconferencing in all levels of our lives. Videoconferencing suddenly appeared everywhere. Visits with family and friends we could not see live and in person any longer moved to videoconferencing platforms. Meetings with clients moved from offices to videoconferencing platforms. Many medical visits moved from doctors’ offices to videoconferencing platforms. Court appearances moved from courtrooms to videoconferencing platforms. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes moved from conference rooms to videoconferencing platforms. Trials moved from courtrooms to videoconferencing platforms. CLE programs moved to videoconferencing platforms. Book club, social club, service club, and even bar association meetings moved to videoconferencing platforms.
With all this videoconferencing suddenly happening, many people realized how little they knew about how to work the videoconferencing platforms effectively and efficiently. Accordingly, the powers that be asked us to write a basic primer for videoconferencing to help those who feel uneasy with their tech skills respecting videoconferencing feel more at ease and handle the technology more effectively, and to help those relatively comfortable with the process improve their videoconferencing skills.
The number of videoconferencing platforms available at the present time precludes our providing detailed instructions on how to operate each of them. In truth, although we consider ourselves proficient at handling videoconferencing on multiple platforms, we would immediately acknowledge that we have not come close to experimenting with all or even most of the available platforms. As a result, we will talk primarily in terms of some basic foundational concerns respecting videoconferencing that will cross most, if not all, platforms.
Get the Right Equipment
The first step to a successful videoconference requires acquisition of appropriate equipment. Most of you will have computers or tablets or even smartphones with built-in cameras and microphones. If you add Internet access and the appropriate software, you can do a videoconference. While that might suffice for personal meetings (friends, family, even book clubs, social clubs, or attending a CLE program), as a general rule you will want to upgrade your equipment for court appearances and, in particular, for a trial or an ADR proceeding. Certainly, different computers will have different quality cameras and microphones, and some, quite frankly, we would not want to use for even the most casual videoconference. In fact, most of the best-known equipment, such as products from Apple, Dell, Lenovo, and the like, have pretty fair cameras and microphones. But fair is only fair, and you will want better than fair for trials, ADR proceedings, and such. Accordingly, we encourage you to invest a few hundred dollars in a quality microphone and camera.
You have many cameras and microphones to choose from. What you choose will depend in part on your setup and whether you will join the conference solo or from a conference room with more than one person. Different equipment works better in each of these situations. As we anticipate most of you will join the conferences solo, we will focus on that equipment.
Microphones. In our opinion, Blue and Shure make some of the best microphones for videoconferencing. In terms of bang for your buck, we like the Blue Yeti ($129.99; https://www.bluemic.com). Amazon currently has the Yeti on sale for $110. If you want to take a step up, you can get the professional-quality Yeti X for $169.99. Blue has also released a smaller Yeti Nano for $99.99, but we have not had the opportunity to try it. The basic Yeti offers a significant bump up in sound quality when compared to built-in microphones. It sits on your desktop on a base about four inches in diameter. It connects to your computer by a wired USB connection. We find it works well for both desktop and laptop computers, but due to its size, we consider it best left in one place for use.
Cameras. Again, you have lots of choices. Our favorites come from Logitech. If you go to their website (https://www.logitech.com), you can see the various cameras Logitech offers and compare their features. For solo use we particularly like the BCC950 ($299.99) for desktops.
You can get combination units that incorporate both a webcam and a microphone as well. They work particularly well with laptops and videoconferencing on the road. We especially like the Logitech C925e ($99.99) for laptops. Note that while we do not think the camera on the C925e does as good a job as the BCC950, nor do we believe the microphone works as well as the Blue Yeti, the C925e does offer a reasonably priced compact combination package that works well for travel.
Remember that if you want to switch from the internal microphone and camera to an external device, you will need to go to the appropriate control in your device (depending on your operating system) and switch from the internal device to the external device. If you do not make the switch, you will remain on the default device (internal). It will not change automatically. That said, if you switch to the external device and then disconnect it, most systems will automatically switch back to the internal device as the only currently available option.
Lighting. If you have any background in or experience with photography, you likely understand the critical role lighting plays in image quality. The same holds true with a webcam and a videoconference. While sometimes you may be lucky enough that natural lighting or the ambient lighting in your room will work adequately, we do not recommend planning on that. Instead, we think you should invest a few dollars in a lighting system that will enhance your appearance. We like the Lume Cube Broadcast Lighting Kit (https://lumecube.com) enough that we use two of them most of the time to ensure even lighting on both sides. The system comes with a light panel and a tripod stand; it gives you the ability to move the lights around and adjust their brightness to maximize the quality of the image you present. Lume Cube currently has them on sale for $99.95 (normally $129.95). For $69.95 you can get their lighting panel with a display mount that works on desktop displays but is designed for laptops. You will want to have a combination of front and side lighting. You will want to stay away from back-lighting, as it will tend to put you in shadows. Lume Cube is not the only player in this league, but we think their lighting products offer a good value for your investment and have enjoyed using them for videoconferencing, video recording, and still photography.
Displays. Many people have encouraged the use of two or more displays for some time now. As a general rule, we have found this particularly helpful if you work off of a laptop and use the built-in display rather than switching to a larger monitor. In most cases, we think a large monitor works just about as well as two smaller displays. If you are doing a videoconference hearing (ADR process, trial, etc.), we definitely recommend getting a second display. We like to keep the people who are appearing in the event on one display and use the second for documents and other materials necessary for the hearing. You have your choice of many displays. Look for one that works well with your device and operating system. The cost of monitors has gone down in recent years, and you can get a reasonable-sized and decent-quality second monitor for under $100. For example, Amazon sells a 21.5” Acer monitor for $92.98 and a 23.8” HP monitor for $129.98. You can get larger monitors if you like, and you can spend much more for a monitor if you want. We don’t think you need to do that, but, in case you have some interest in the other end of the spectrum and want to see some expensive monitors, go to the Apple website. They have displays going for as much as $5,999. We do not think you need something anywhere near that level for videoconferencing.
Audio. You have the choice of using earphones, the speakers built into your computer, or external speakers. While some people like the image presented by wearing earphones or a headset, we generally do not, particularly for a court appearance. We have external speakers attached to our computer but generally find the internal speakers adequate for videoconferencing. On occasion we will use the external speakers, but we find they often overpower in this use. We like them better for music or watching a movie. Earphones and headphones can provide exceptional sound and can help if you have external noise that might interfere with your hearing the speakers, particularly if the earphones or headphones have noise-cancellation capabilities. We find closing the door to the room keeps out most of the noise. Speaker, earphone, and headphone choices reflect the tastes of the listener. We do not have the space in this article to review them, but we have done so in other locations and other articles. (For our most recent overview, see the “2020 Tech Gift Guide” in GPSolo’s November/December 2020 issue; https://tinyurl.com/k3bnx4m.) Generally, we prefer Bose, Jabra, and Shure earphones and headphones. Sony has introduced some interesting headphones recently as well. When it comes to external speakers for your computer, we generally opt for Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, or Apple. For whatever it may be worth, the quality of wireless (Bluetooth) connections has improved significantly, but wired connections still sound cleaner to us.
The location you choose for videoconferencing has great significance. It must have reliable, functional, high-speed Internet access. If it does not, all the equipment in the world will not help you. Additionally, if you are going to do a trial or ADR meeting online, you need a place that looks professional. You will want it to look professional for your client meetings as well. You don’t need a soundproof studio to make it work (but if you have one, that’s great). You should have a clean, private area in your office or house that you use. That area should not be the kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. We have seen people appear in court via videoconferencing from their bedroom. It did not look professional, even though the bed was made and the room looked clean. For example, one of the authors, Jeff, works out of his house and has an office at home. He has a rolltop desk in his office and pulls the top down before starting a videoconference to hide anything that may be on the desktop and provide a solid background for him. He sits with his back to the desk so that other participants see only him, the roll top of the desk, and little more. Before he does a videoconference, he does a dry run to make sure that anything that is out of place is off camera so that the room looks professional. While you can hide a multitude of sins with a virtual background, we don’t recommend that you go that way. Virtual backgrounds superimpose an image over whatever else is in the room, but they often pixelate and distort, particularly if you have less than optimally high-speed Internet. They also tend to create some latency in the image. We recognize that sometimes the circumstances don’t leave you with a viable option, and you may have to use a virtual background. If you do, we suggest you think very carefully about the suitability of the background you choose. We would opt for a law office or library image over a beach scene or a party. You get the idea.
You have many options when it comes to software for videoconferencing. We have used a number of them, but not nearly all of them. Anecdotally, most people appear to have opted for Zoom and Microsoft Teams as their platform. Zoom is probably the most widely used in both the office and home. In our experience it works well, and you can easily learn it. For those of you who have already invested in Microsoft 365, you may want to try Microsoft Teams.
As we do not have unlimited space, we cannot provide operating instructions or even descriptions of all the available platforms in this article. Accordingly, we will limit ourselves to a brief discussion respecting what we consider the two most popular platforms, along with a briefer discussion respecting a third option, Cisco Webex.
Zoom. You can easily set up and use the Zoom software. It offers a free version and more advanced features by subscription. It works reliably, dependably, and offers high-definition videoconferencing. To get started, go to https://zoom.com. There, you can sign up, sign in, or just join a meeting without doing any of that. You can download Zoom tools to your desktop by going to https://zoom.us/download. It is great for use in-house or with external teams, and you can host broadcasts and webinars. Ease of use is one of Zoom’s most outstanding features. Anyone can jump into a Zoom meeting from their phone, tablet, or laptop, and only one user needs to download the application to act as host.
Microsoft Teams. Microsoft created this team collaboration tool in 2017. It replaced Skype for Business and offers individual and group messaging features, video meetings, and document editing collaboration tools. To get started with Microsoft Tools, go to https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoft-teams/download-app and download the software. You can download it to your desktop and/or for your mobile device.
Teams’ video meetings feature offers an interesting “Together Mode” that allows users at a meeting to appear together. The feature uses AI technology to digitally place participants in a shared background image, making it appear as though they are “together” in a location.
Teams integrates organically with many other Microsoft products, including Word, Outlook, and SharePoint. In practice we have found that Teams’ integration with OneNote lags noticeably. Teams has some features that clearly distinguish it from Zoom. These features include its integration with Microsoft 365 applications, closed captions, and in-line translation.
Webex. Cisco Webex has shown some popularity, although much less than Zoom and Teams. Many see Webex as having superior data encryption, although in October 2020, after a series of data breaches, Zoom increased its attention to security and rolled out end-to-end encryption as well. Microsoft Teams offers in-transit and at-rest encryption, which is not as secure as Zoom’s and Webex’s end-to-end encryption. To get started with Webex, go to https://www.webex.com/downloads.html.
All three are versatile across Windows, macOS, and iOS platforms. Because you never know what type of meeting you may be called into, we recommend downloading all three tools to your systems (computer and mobile) and familiarizing yourself with each of them.
Other platforms of interest. In addition to the platforms we have addressed, we know that some local court systems have opted for other platforms. The reasons for these choices may be known only to those who made the decision, but if you appear in a court system that uses BlueJeans or one of the other available systems, you should familiarize yourself with that system as well. If you appear in multiple areas using multiple systems, you should, of course, learn all of them. We strongly recommend that you become proficient in using any platform that you will use for court appearances of any sort, ADR conferences, or any other professional appearances. Proficiency in the use of technology has instituted itself as a part of the basic competency of attorneys, so you have practical, professional, and ethical reasons to learn the systems you will use.
For whatever value it may have to you, we prefer using Zoom and almost universally choose it when we control the platform selection.
The information we provide below works across the platforms we have discussed and should, in fact, work on any videoconferencing platform. The tips we include in this section also apply universally to videoconferencing.
- Venue. We have discussed venue above, but remember, no matter where you appear from or what device you use, you want the background to look professional. If you have to appear in a setting that lacks a professional appearance, solve it with a virtual background that provides one. That is pretty much the only time we encourage you to use a virtual background in a professional context.
- Dress for the occasion. Many people think that they can dress casually or even more informally when they do a videoconference from home. We think this represents bad thinking. We recommend that you dress pretty much the same for a videoconference as you would if you were appearing live and in person. We have seen people appear in casual clothes in court, and it does not look professional to us. You can make some compromises if you really want to do so. For example, if you will do the conference seated so that only the upper half of your body appears, you can probably get away with wearing dark slacks or jeans. We don’t recommend wearing shorts, just in case you stand up in the course of the conference. We also recommend making sure you are fully attired. Appearing partially disrobed can cause serious embarrassment and cost one broadcaster a job. We have noticed that many men are appearing with a shirt and tie and not wearing their jackets. Some judges have found that acceptable. You do need to choose your time with some caution. For example, we would be more inclined to do that at a conference than in a jury trial.
- Do not filter your appearance! Most of you have likely heard by now of the attorney who appeared in court via videoconference as a cat. Many of you have also seen the video of it that has gone viral on the Internet. While the judge seemed to take it in stride and the attorney got his 15 minutes of fame from it, we would never want to find ourselves in that position. Using filters like that has its place. Jeff’s granddaughter (four years old) loves these filters. That is a good place to use them. But, if you ever use one in a personal context, make sure you turn it off at the end of that conference to ensure that it does not rear its ugly head the next time you join a meeting. We like to ensure that we appear as we intend to appear by checking out how we look on the platform immediately prior to joining the meeting.
- Watch yourself. Remember that when you do a videoconference, you will always appear on the camera, and it will show a close-up of your face. This means if you make faces, pick your nose, or the like, everyone will see it. Spend some time sitting in front of your display looking at yourself in the camera to get an idea of what others see and make any necessary adjustments accordingly.
- Practice. Before you ever appear on a video platform, do some practice runs. Be sure you understand how to use every feature you may need, including sharing your desktop and breakout rooms. The more familiarity you have with how things work, the more likely you will get through looking professional. If you do a videoconference with people less experienced than you in dealing with the process, you may find you turn into the tech consultant for the group. We don’t think that it hurts you to do that, as we think most people end up being grateful that you could lead them out of the wilderness.
- Take charge. We prefer hosting videoconferences to attending conferences hosted by others. Most platforms offer certain administrative tools to the host that others cannot use. We like having those tools at our disposal.
- Clean off your desktop. We refer here to the computer desktop, not your physical desktop, which you should also clean. While most platforms have some way to show a single folder or file or window from your desktop, they also have the ability to show everything on it. Try to show only the things you want seen, but reduce your risk by cleaning everything else off your desktop and closing your finder windows, your e-mail window, and all other windows that you will not need for the conference. If you don’t have time to file everything on your desktop before the conference, you can solve the problem by creating a new folder, giving it an innocuous name, and moving everything else off your desktop and into that folder. You can retrieve it after the meeting.
- Mute your microphone. When you speak, make sure you have turned on your microphone. The rest of the time, put it on mute. This prevents telephones, dogs, spouses, children, and the like from interrupting or disturbing the process. We also recommend closing the door to the room, with all non-essential personnel (including pets) on the other side of the door. This will muffle a lot of the noise they might otherwise make. You might also find it prudent to put your pets outside to ensure that they do not stand by your door and bark or scratch to get your attention.
We believe that videoconferencing has become a significant part of our personal and professional lives. We do not think that will change after the end of the pandemic. We now consider it part of the standard package of communication tools available to us personally and professionally. We think that you need to learn how to deal with it successfully. Ideally, you will become as comfortable with videoconferencing as you are with telephone calls.