5 Zoom Lessons for Lawyers as Leaders and Teachers

George Siedel
As you develop your virtual presentation skills, maintaining a sense of humor is important.

As you develop your virtual presentation skills, maintaining a sense of humor is important.

FluxFactory via iStock

Before she passed away in January 2021, Stanford Law professor Deborah Rhode played a leadership role in the legal profession. In addition to recognition for her teaching and research accomplishments (such as the Outstanding Scholar Award from the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation), she chaired the American Bar Association Commission on Women, and the ABA honored her with the Michael Franck Award and the Pro Bono Publico Award.

Lawyers Are Leaders

Professor Rhode had a special interest in leadership education for lawyers. In her book Lawyers as Leaders, she noted the critical leadership role that lawyers play in America: “Although they account for just 0.4 percent of the population, lawyers are well-represented at all levels of leadership, as governors, state legislators, judges, prosecutors, general counsel, law firm managing partners, and heads of corporate, government, and non-profit organizations. Even when they do not occupy top positions in their workplaces, lawyers lead teams, committees, task forces, and charitable initiatives.”

Lawyers Are Teachers

In the routine practice of law, lawyers play an essential teaching role when interacting with clients, colleagues, staff, juries, and judges. The teaching role of lawyers expands when they accept leadership responsibilities of the type noted by Professor Rhode. As Sydney Finkelstein observes in the title of his 2018 landmark article in Harvard Business Review, “the best leaders are great teachers.” He takes this idea one step further, concluding that “if you’re not teaching, you’re not really leading.”

Noel Tichy of the University of Michigan makes a similar argument in his book The Cycle of Leadership: How Great Leaders Teach Their Companies to Win, where he notes that “the essence of leading is not commanding, but teaching.” Average leaders set goals for their teams, but great leaders, Tichy explains, also provide teams with the motivation and knowledge necessary to achieve those goals.

Engaging a Virtual Audience

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has created challenges for lawyers and other leaders in their teaching role. They have had to use still-developing video communication technology to engage audiences that sometimes are scattered around the world. That raises the question: What can lawyer-leaders learn from instructors who have gained substantial teaching experience on video conferencing platforms?

During the pandemic, I started using Zoom to teach negotiation courses to my students, some of whom were stranded by lockdowns worldwide. I have also used video conferencing platforms to present webinars to lawyers and executives in the United States, Asia, and South America. The following five lessons are based on my experiences so far.

Select video features intentionally.

The good news is that a video conferencing platform like Zoom includes features that meet a variety of teaching needs—you can chat, conduct a poll, share screens, record, use breakout rooms, annotate materials, or add captions. The bad news is that using too many of these features at one time can complicate and dilute the learning experience. When designing learning experiences, take to heart Thoreau’s plea in Walden to “Simplify, simplify.”

For example, I do not direct participants to use Zoom’s chat function because it leads to multitasking. I also do not use the polling feature extensively, so that I do not distract them from the main discussion.

But I do use the features in ways that serve my intentions. Instead of setting up my iPad or another device as a whiteboard, I find it simpler to use the platform’s annotation feature. And because I appreciate the ability of polls to keep participants engaged, I use the voting feature that allows them to respond to questions with a simple “yes” or “no.” In a post-course evaluation, one person noted, “I liked the ‘yes or no’ voting feature that was utilized a lot by the professor because it helped make me feel more engaged in class.”

Solve the “eye contact” dilemma.

In their June 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “You Might Not Be Hearing Your Team’s Best Ideas,” Michael Parke of the Wharton School and Elad Sherf of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, highlight skills leaders can use to bring out the best in others. These include asking questions, inviting ideas, following up, and creating a sense of psychological safety.

These skills are easier to apply during in-person meetings, where you can maintain eye contact and scan participants’ facial expressions to gauge whether they understand the material or need encouragement to speak up.

In Zoom interactions, such skills are far more difficult to practice. The boxes that display participants’ faces are small, and everyone present might not fit on one screen. Noticing when someone wants to make a comment or respond to a question can be difficult.

When I first started teaching over Zoom, I tried to scan faces as I would during in-person teaching, but this distracted me from maintaining eye contact with the camera. I finally stuck a Post-it Note near my camera with “Look here” written on it as a reminder. I also take advantage of the “Raise Hand” icon, which allows me to call on participants in the order that they volunteer.

Improve the 70-percent expectation.

Video conferencing platforms present several technology challenges, from video freezing to people forgetting to unmute. Because of such interruptions, there is a consensus that teachers should expect to cover only around 70 percent of the material online that they would cover in a traditional in-person course.

To increase this percentage, I try to make my presentations more efficient. Students complete a larger percentage of the coursework before class, and I encourage them to use a suite of free negotiation tools that I developed for executive courses when preparing to negotiate. And instead of the 90 minutes I normally would set aside for team-based discussion of a case on negotiation ethics, I ask my MBA students to discuss a shorter scenario in which they evaluate a lawyer’s advice in light of several ethical tests. Then I have them watch The Burger Murders, a five-minute video of the shorter case that Christine Ladwig and I developed for TED in July 2020.

Address Zoom fatigue.

Zoom fatigue is a common malady in law practice and in teaching. Fatigue is exacerbated when a session that begins at 8 a.m. in Michigan starts at 5 a.m. for students in California and at 9 p.m. for students in China. A course that ends at 5:30 p.m. in Michigan finishes at 4:00 a.m. the next morning in India.

To address this fatigue, I continually engage learners with different activities, including team-based breakout sessions, videos, and interactive case discussions. I also stand as I teach, which students say increases their energy levels.

When I mentioned this approach to a colleague, he gave me a puzzled look before asking, “If you stand, wouldn’t the camera be aimed at your belt buckle?” My desk is adjustable, so the camera rises with it when I adjust its height to stand.

Embrace flexibility—and humility.

Teaching from my home study presented problems that I had never faced with in-person learning. Would I have to manage a hardware failure or a power outage during class? What if the video platform crashes? What lighting adjustments should I make —for example, to minimize an unwanted halo effect on my balding head caused by an overhead light? How can I minimize outside noise such as the loud hum of my neighbor’s lawnmower? How would I respond if Zoombombers hacked into the course?

The students also encountered unique challenges. One student was forced to drop my course after contracting COVID-19; another missed class because of contact tracing. One student had Wi-Fi problems when he had to move into isolation after his girlfriend contracted COVID-19; another lost his broadband connection when he and his 10 roommates streamed at the same time. A new mother had to turn off her camera periodically when pumping breast milk for her son; others coped with distractions from family members or family pets.

That’s why we all must embrace flexibility. When one student lost Wi-Fi twice during a key negotiation exercise, she called in on her phone. I also established a chain of communication to reach students if the internet connection failed, and I kept my laptop turned on and ready to go in case my desktop computer failed.

As it turned out, I lost connection with students only once, and the lapse lasted only for a few seconds. A class recording captured the reactions of two students who forgot they were being recorded. “Did we lose him?” asked Student A. To which Student B responded, “Yeah, awesome.”

This exchange offers a final lesson for lawyer-leaders: Maintain a touch of humility as you navigate this technology. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and refine your teaching skills.

As you develop these skills, maintaining a sense of humor is important. During a recent hearing in Texas, when a filter portrayed an attorney as a sad kitten, he assured Judge Roy Ferguson that “I’m here live. I am not a cat.” After tweeting a video of the hearing that went viral worldwide, Judge Ferguson followed up with this tweet: “So pleased to have started a tweet that started the whole world laughing. The world needs more of it.” But on a more serious note, he reminded us that “These fun moments are a by-product of the legal profession’s dedication to ensuring that the justice system continues to function in these tough times. Everyone involved handled it with dignity, and the filtered lawyer showed incredible grace. True professionalism all around!”

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George Siedel

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George Siedel is an emeritus professor and former associate dean for executive education at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. In 2018, he received the Distinguished Career Achievement Award from the Academy of Legal Studies in Business. The lessons in this column are adapted from his post at AACSB Insights in January 2021.