Over the past month, videoconferencing has become the new normal. After all, there hasn’t been much choice in light of the shelter-in-place mandates in effect in many states and the implementation of social distancing as a necessary safety measure. As a result, most courts have suspended in-person appearances and have begun to use videoconferencing tools to facilitate and streamline the swift administration of justice.
With the sudden increase in court proceedings via videoconference came unintended consequences, as lawyers tried to navigate the practicalities of videoconferencing etiquette. Unfortunately, not all lawyers walked that line as well as they could have, as evidenced by a Florida judge’s impassioned plea in a letter wherein he requested that lawyers appearing before him for videoconferences wear shirts and otherwise dress in manner that befits he occasion.
Of course, this begs the question: what is the appropriate etiquette for court appearances via videoconference? What steps can – and should – you take to ensure that your videoconferences are professional and suitable for the circumstances?
Since court appearances using videoconference are a relatively new concept, there are no well-established rules or accepted practices available as of yet. That being said, common sense along with practical know-how can be exercised to ensure that you put your best foot forward when representing your clients via videoconference. To that end, here are some practical steps you can take to achieve that goal.
1. Dress for the part
Make sure to dress appropriately for the occasion, at least on the top half of your body, since that’s usually all that will be visible on the screen. Put on a shirt and tie, or throw on a blazer over your blouse – it can make all the difference. Brush your hair and make yourself otherwise presentable. You may be quarantined in your home, but if you’re appearing in a video court proceeding, dress the part. By doing so, your appearance won’t distract from the point you’re trying to make. And if your client will be appearing, make sure to impress upon your client the importance of dressing appropriately as well.
2. Choose your background with care
Consider your background prior to logging on to the meeting. If you’ll be using your room as your background, be aware of what’s behind you and how it will appear to others in the meeting. Make sure there are no annoying distractions, such as bright lights or the sun shining through windows behind you. If, out of necessity, you’re in a room that isn’t entirely professional, such as a bedroom or kitchen, consider using a background image, if the videoconferencing software will permit it. But if you go that route, make sure to choose a professional background, like a bookshelf or a cityscape. The same advice applies if your client will be appearing as well.
3. Be aware of body language
Your body language matters, and so does your clients – even during a video call. For starters, even though it can be difficult to get used to it, try to look directly at the camera when you speak. Also, during the videoconference, don’t multitask or fidget. Try to keep your hands away from your face and keep your face neutral. Your features and facial expressions are more easily discernible during videoconferences, and you wouldn’t want a wayward expression to be misinterpreted – especially by the judge! Make sure to also share these tips with any clients who might be appearing.
4. Sign in early
It’s a good idea for both you and your client to sign in a few minutes early. That way, if you encounter any issues while signing in, you’ll have time to troubleshoot them. And even if you don’t experience any sign on issues, it never hurts to arrive early. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
5. Test the device during a practice session
Speaking of troubleshooting, it’s always a good idea to conduct a practice run prior to the conference, especially if your client will be appearing using their own device as well. If you’ve never used the particular videoconferencing software preferred by the judge, make sure it’s compatible with your device and download any software prior to the actual conference. Your client should do the same. Better safe than sorry!
6. Use a headset
Avoid using your computer’s audio. Instead, use a headset. And if it’s bluetooth, make sure to pair it with your device prior to the conference. By using a headset, you’ll preserve client confidentiality and have better sound quality all around. Speaking of sound quality, mute yourself whenever you’re not speaking. Otherwise any inadvertent sound that you make on your end will adversely affect the audio for all meeting attendees. The advice applies equally to any clients attending the videoconference.
7. Include your role as part of your sign on name
Last, but not least, consider adding your role in the proceeding to your name when you sign on. For example: Sarah Jones, counsel for the defendant. If your client is attending via video, your client should do the same. By doing this, it becomes immediately clear to everyone attending the conference who you are and what your role is, thus providing more clarity and ensuring that the proceeding runs smoothly.
8. Discuss confidentiality with your client ahead of time
If your client will be at the virtual court appearance, make sure that your client understands how videoconferences work and that all participants can hear what’s being said if you’re not muted. Explain the concept of confidentiality and how important it is to avoid sharing confidential information or to have confidential discussions during the appearance.
Those are my top videoconferencing etiquette tips for lawyers. Did I miss any? If so, let me know in the comments. And for even more web conferencing tips, check out this blog post.