If you attend hearings, you need to know the best practices — and common mistakes — of virtual interactions with judges.
In a virtual setting, the standards of etiquette are very similar to those you know from the courtroom. There are a few important differences, though. Since remote hearings are here to stay, it’s a good idea to brush up on the basics of videoconferencing.
The following is a rundown of the top dos and don’ts of virtual hearings.
Before you log in
You would never attend a hearing without proper preparation, right?
While you’re getting ready, make sure that you pay attention to both the case details and the technological setup that will help your hearing go smoothly.
It’s tempting to wait until it’s time to log in to think about the tech, but that’s a mistake. By the time you realize there’s an issue, you’ll already be late for your hearing. Spend a few minutes on these steps well before your scheduled time.
Do: Check your technology and video conferencing setup
The first essential step is to check your video conferencing technology.
Verify the software the court uses — likely Zoom, but make no assumptions — and download that software to your computer or phone. Using your computer is much more professional, but it’s okay to use your smartphone if you don’t have another option.
Once you’re sure you have the appropriate software, test the technology before the hearing.
Ensure that your microphone and camera work well and that you can hear people clearly. Learn how to mute and unmute yourself. Get familiar with software settings and security features.
Also check your camera angle and your background.
Try to make your camera eye level or higher so that you can speak to the camera rather than the screen. Make sure that there’s nothing in view behind you that you don’t want the judge to see.
Experiment with your distance from the screen — moving away from the camera makes you appear smaller, but you will have more ability to make visible hand gestures.
Ensure at least your head and shoulders are visible on the screen, and maintain an upright posture. It’s okay to remain seated or stand, but plan on sticking to one or the other. However you start the hearing should be the way you continue.
Do: Prepare for the virtual hearing
Once you have your video conference technology in play and know how to use it, you should prepare for the specific virtual hearing coming up.
Check your court’s website for any guidelines for attendance at virtual hearings. Your court’s local rules may also provide guidance.
Also consider consulting with the court clerk, who may be able to provide specific pointers and a flavor of what to expect.
If there is any need to communicate with a client during the hearing, plan for this in advance. You should know the rules around private and public communication with your client during a hearing.
For example, instead of whispering to them during a witness’ testimony, as would be done in a physical courtroom, you may consider texting or other instant messaging instead. However, be sure that you’re following the rules and ethics — some lawyers have been disciplined for coaching clients inappropriately during Zoom meetings.
Have similar contingencies in place if you need to communicate with co-counsel or members of your own team. Use your best judgment. If you wouldn’t talk about it in a courtroom while a judge is looking at you, don’t text about it during a Zoom hearing. Wait if you can.
Be prepared to appropriately present any exhibits during your virtual hearings.
You will not be able to simply hold exhibits up in front of the camera, so ensure you are familiar with the court’s procedures. Have your exhibits labeled and electronically filed.
In addition, you will need to be able to share your screen to display the exhibits. Test that feature when you do your tech check.
Do: Choose your physical location
Choosing an appropriate physical location for you to attend the remote hearing is critical.
Ensure you are in a quiet location with minimal background noise, while also having a strong internet connection.
Minimize distractions and ensure that others in your workplace or home understand that you are not to be disturbed. If you need to close or lock your door, do so before the hearing starts.
Check that your location is well-suited to video conferencing. Make sure there is no window or light source behind you. Instead, turn your desk around or look for a space where the light comes from in front of you to illuminate your face.
Choose a room with soft furnishing that minimizes the echo effect. Ensure your background is not cluttered or distracting.
If you’re working from home and you simply can’t create a professional environment for your hearing, consider using the blurred background feature if allowed by the court.
Alternatively, you can dial in from a coworking space or other professional space that allows you to use a private room for a small fee. Don’t dial in from a coffee shop or restaurant that offers free WiFi. These connections are not secure and the setting is not appropriate for a hearing.
Your behavior during the virtual hearing
Last but not least is your actual conduct during the hearing. Keep the following guidelines in mind.
Do: Dress professionally
Do not assume you can dress down simply because you are appearing remotely. It should go without saying that you should not wear shorts or pajamas or make an appearance from your bed.
Instead, dress professionally in normal courtroom attire for your virtual hearing.
Some colors and patterns show up better on webcams, so it’s a good idea to test your outfit before you attend. Simply turn on your webcam and look at your preview video to make sure you look the way you intend to.
Don’t: Be late
Be as punctual as you would for any court hearing by connecting to the hearing early, preferably at least ten minutes.
Ensure you have entered the password and any other login information correctly, and give yourself plenty of time to troubleshoot if you have trouble getting in.
In addition, you want time to handle any last-minute technical issues. If your software suddenly needs to update before opening, for example, you should have time to do that.
You will likely be waiting in a virtual waiting room until your matter is called. Be mindful that your webcam and microphone might turn on suddenly when you’re let in, so behave professionally even while the camera is off in the waiting room.
Do: Keep your microphone muted
Do not forget to keep your microphone muted when you are not speaking. Background noise is otherwise very noticeable and disruptive, especially when that noise includes your typing, eating, or conversing with others.
An unmuted microphone is also a surefire way to test the patience and temper of any judge — obviously not your goal.
Remember to unmute yourself when it’s time to speak. Having to start over because you were muted is another common annoyance in virtual hearings.
Familiarize yourself with the mute and unmute feature both in speaker view (when you can see the other people on the call) and during a screen share (when you’re sharing an exhibit from your computer) so that you don’t have to hunt for the button when the views change.
Don’t: Interrupt or zone out to read
Virtual hearings quickly become unmanageable if more than one participant speaks at a time.
In addition, there is often a video or audio lag between when a person speaks and the other participants hear them.
Be sure to not speak over any other participant — including the judge — and pause prior to speaking to make sure that the lag doesn’t create too much overlap.
Try to avoid, or at least minimize, any reading of notes or documents while you are speaking.
Reading causes your eyes to drop down and your voice modulation to change. Both of these effects are especially notable during virtual hearings, where your voice and face on the screen are the main focal points.
Judges are as susceptible to online fatigue as anyone, so you need to remain compelling in your delivery. Make “eye contact” with the camera and stay energetically engaged.
Do: Mind your facial expressions
Another consideration for virtual hearings is to remain mindful of your facial expressions.
A visible emotional reaction to the arguments or testimony of other participants could undermine your professional demeanor.
Many facial expressions that might go unnoticed during an in-person hearing could become much more obvious with your face visible on a screen, often at the same time as other participants.
Keep these guidelines in mind for your next virtual hearing. In the shift from in-person to remote interactions with the court, these tips are your best bet to ensure your lawyering abilities still shine through.