Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs that remote proceedings for federal civil proceedings are likely to remain a feature, if not the default mechanism, for the foreseeable future. (And, as a working single parent, I welcome the continuation of remote proceedings as a common-sense tool that avoids unnecessary travel, long periods of little to no productivity, and disruptions at home while simultaneously enabling working parents to balance and succeed in both worlds.) Pop-in on any virtual proceeding in federal court and you’ll quickly note that despite the lapse of 24 months, many practitioners have yet to hone their essential zoom skill set. The following 10 practical tips will help you put your best face forward during a remote court proceeding.
- Test the software, and your speakers/headset, before the proceeding.
I’m blessed with resourceful technology staff who are experts at using Zoom and Teams (the two most popular virtual software programs for federal court proceedings). Our staff test the links, ensure the audio and visual devices are working properly, and set us up to succeed technologically. If you don’t have such personnel at your disposal, do a test run yourself at least 30-60 minutes before your proceeding, in time to make any necessary adjustments.
Also, make sure the hyperlink works before the hearing. I had a virtual hearing a week ago in Florida federal court in which the zoom link was broken and wouldn’t open for any participants. Thankfully, we identified the defect early and a new link was provided to all parties well before the scheduled start time.
Finally, test your speakers and headset before the proceeding. You don’t want to be ready to enter your appearance just to discover you have no sound, causing the entire proceeding to be delayed while you attempt to troubleshoot under pressure.
- Know how to use the basic features of the most commonly used software for remote proceedings.
Each software has different features and functionality. Know how to turn your camera on and off, virtually raise your hand to get the clerk’s attention, and mute yourself. If you need to use more advanced features, do a test run of those features well before your proceeding.
- Dress to impress.
Remember that you’re a professional advocate representing your client’s interests. If you’d wear a suit to a physical courtroom, wear it to your remote proceeding too. Remember that darker colors and solids appear best on screen.
- Be cognizant of your background and lighting.
If you need to lower your shades to block out too much light, do so. If you need to open the shades or add an over-head and extra light so you don’t appear ghoulish, do so. You should also be aware of what’s visible on the screen in your background; your background should be boring, professional, and not distracting.
- Look into the camera, not at the boxes on the screen.
If you were in court, you’d make your argument directly facing the judge, not looking off to the side at an empty jury box, glancing all around at counsel’s table, or glancing out the windows. Do the same while on screen: look directly at the camera and make eye-contact with your judge.
- Angle the camera so you’re looking slightly up, not down.
Set your camera up so it is slightly above eye-level and you’re looking slightly up at it, not down.
- Check your microphone volume.
Just as with your lighting settings, your volume settings should strike a balance: not too loud, not too soft. Try to avoid logging on with two devices; doing so often results in feedback that renders the entire proceeding useless until the feedback is eliminated.
- Act as if you’re physically in a courtroom: focus solely on the proceeding.
Don’t squirm, slouch, or spin in your seat. Don’t look everywhere else but at the screen. Don’t multi-task.
- Speak clearly at a reasonable tempo and volume.
Remember that your proceeding will likely need to be transcribed. Do the court reporter a favor and speak at a reasonable tempo and volume. There’s no award for speed-talking!
- Mute yourself when you’re not speaking.
Many courts mute participants until called upon to speak. Regardless, always mute yourself when you’re not speaking to avoid unnecessary background noise disrupting the proceeding.
Many federal judges will likely continue to embrace remote proceedings as long as the positive aspects outweigh the negatives. Be the best advocate you can be for your client by practicing and implementing these essential skills. If nothing else, you’ll set yourself apart from your opponent, and may show the judge in a close call that you’re the better advocate and should win.