As the global pandemic drags on, courts across the country have had to adapt. Many courts have now started conducting virtual court hearings, and even virtual trials. While these virtual “Zoom Courts” have kept our justice system moving, they have also created new challenges for lawyers and clients alike.
In some ways our new “virtual normal” has its benefits. You now can attend your court hearing without having to worry about driving, parking, getting through court security, or even wearing pants.
On the other hand, having to deal with technology and new procedures can make your court appearance now more stressful than ever.
Since virtual court hearings are probably not going away any time soon, learning how to manage the technology is a must for anyone who has a case in court today.
Here are 15 simple tips that will help make your zoom hearing go smoothly.
15 Tips for Successful Virtual Court Hearings
1. Make Sure You Have A Reliable Computer and a Good Internet Connection.
I know everyone does everything with their cell phone today. You can download the Zoom app on your phone and use your phone to get into your Zoom court hearings. But if you want to make sure your Zoom hearing goes well it’s best to be on a laptop or desktop computer.
Being on a computer allows you to control your environment more. It keeps your screen from shaking as you try to hold your phone still. It also lets you see what’s happening at your hearing better since your screen will be bigger.
Not only should you try to be on a real computer for your virtual hearing but you should also try to use an ethernet connection to log in to the meeting instead of Wi-Fi. Wi-fi is less stable and can cut in and out. (If you must use Wi-Fi make sure you are somewhere that has a strong signal.)
Finally, it would probably be a good idea to close down any other programs and apps you have running on your computer. Zoom can consume a lot of bandwidth and you don’t want anything to interfere with your connection.
2. Download and Run Zoom BEFORE the Day Of Your Virtual Hearing.
If you’ve never been on Zoom before (or if you’ve only used it once or twice) PRACTICE attending a Zoom meeting BEFORE the day of your virtual hearing.
Make sure you’ve installed the app on your computer. Make sure you know how the app works so that on the day of the hearing you can log on easily.
3. Use Your Real Name to Login.
When you join the virtual court hearing you will likely find yourself first in a virtual waiting room. The judge (or whoever is running the meeting) will be able to see that you’re in the waiting room. You, on the other hand, will not be able to see the judge or anyone else until you have been admitted into the virtual courtroom.
If you haven’t used your real name to login to the virtual hearing, whoever is running the hearing probably won’t recognize who you are. That means s/he won’t let you into the hearing. (NOTE: If you’re using someone else’s computer the name that shows up in Zoom might be THEIR name not yours! Here’s how to change the display name in Zoom.)
Also, while you’re in the virtual waiting room, BE PATIENT! Zoom only allows scheduling on the half hour. So the judge may have several cases scheduled at the same time. Don’t expect that you will be admitted to the virtual court room two seconds after you hit the waiting room!
4. If Your Internet Goes Down, Call In.
Every Zoom meeting gives you the option to join the meeting by computer audio or to join by phone. If you don’t have internet access for some reason, you can always call into the meeting on your phone.
The same thing is true if your internet goes down for some reason while you’re in the meeting. You can always call in.
Of course, if you call in you won’t be able to see anyone. No one will be able to see you. But at least you’ll be able to participate in the audio portion of the hearing. That is way better than nothing.
5. Pay Attention to Your Background!
The judge will see whatever is behind and around you. That means you need to be in an appropriate place for a formal meeting. (NOTE: You shouldn’t be in your bedroom unless you have NOWHERE else to be. And you shouldn’t be in the bathroom ever. Period.)
Before you even turn on your computer look carefully at everything that will be seen when you’re on camera. Sitting in front of a solid neutrally colored wall is best. Move anything that is messy, dirty or inappropriate out of the camera’s view!
(HINT: If you don’t know what’s appropriate, use the Grandma test. If you would be ashamed if your grandmother saw what’s in your room, it’s not appropriate. Clean it. Move it. Put it away.)
6. Be Careful with Virtual Backgrounds.
Zoom allows you to create virtual backgrounds and use them in your Zoom videos. While that eliminates the problem of having to clean up the room around you when you’re in virtual court, it can create new problems of its own.
First, virtual backgrounds aren’t perfect. They can break up and be distracting, especially if you move.
Also, while your office colleagues may think it’s cool to see you in a bar or on the beach, the judge probably won’t. If you’re going to use a virtual background, choose a solid, neutral color. That may be boring, but it won’t get you in trouble with the court.
7. Pay Attention to Your Lighting!
Good lighting can make or break your video presentation.
Sitting in front of a window will make you look like someone in the witness protection program. Your face will be completely blacked out.
Having lights that are too bright or too dark will make you look terrible. Having no lights on and just sitting in front of a computer screen will make you look a little like a Smurf. You will be blue.
You should have normal room lighting AND a soft light positioned right behind your video camera. That light should shine gently on your face.
8. Pay Attention to Sound!
Choose a quiet place for your Zoom hearing.
Attending your virtual hearing while you’re outside at a coffee shop is a BAD choice! The background noise from the people walking around and talking, as well as traffic, will disrupt your hearing and irritate the judge.
Do your best to be in a room by yourself with the door closed. Also, eliminate as many interrupters as possible.
Put the dog outside and do your best to make sure your kids are occupied. Remember to turn off (or mute) your cell phone and any other electronic device that could beep, buzz, ring, or vibrate.
9. Position Your Camera Carefully.
If you want to make the best possible impression in your Zoom court meeting, then you need to pay attention to where and how you position your camera. That isn’t as easy as you may think.
If your laptop is positioned above you, the only thing that may show up on camera is the top of your head. If your laptop is sitting in your lap, or even on a desk, everyone may be looking up your nose.
If you use two screens and you’re watching the one that DOESN’T have the camera on it, you’re going to look like you’re not paying attention to the court hearing.
Your camera should be positioned directly in front of you at eye level. When you talk to the judge you need to look directly into the camera, not at the computer screen, or anywhere else.
10. Dress Appropriately!
Zoom court is REAL court! You wouldn’t show up in a courtroom in your pajamas. So don’t show up for a virtual court hearing in your pajamas.
Also, it’s a good idea to dress completely! That means you need to wear pants, too.
Sure (theoretically) no one on the Zoom call will see your bottom half. But remember, when you’re attending your court hearing, you’re going to be nervous. If you have to get up and grab something, you’ll probably do it without thinking about the fact that you’re only in your underwear!
The same thing is true if you stand up after your virtual hearing is over, only to realize your camera is still on and you didn’t properly exit the meeting!
11. Practice Good Zoom Etiquette.
Background noise in a Zoom meeting can be maddening! To minimize that noise, you should always mute yourself when you’re not talking.
(NOTE: Most of the time you will already be muted when you’re allowed to enter the Zoom courtroom. So if you want to talk, you’ll have to unmute yourself first.)
If you have a question, raise your hand and wait for the judge to call on you. Then unmute yourself and talk. When you’re done talking, go back on mute.
Remember, too, that if you have a lawyer, you may not be allowed to speak. Your lawyer may do all the talking for you.
12. Don’t Talk Over Anyone.
If two or more people are talking at once, no one gets heard.
Proper courtroom etiquette (whether you’re in a real courtroom or a virtual courtroom) demands that everyone in court be respectful of each other. When one person is talking, every one else needs to be quiet until it’s their turn to talk.
What’s more, when you’re in a Zoom hearing, you may also need to pause for a moment before you talk. Sometimes there’s a sound lag that you need to pay attention to.
13. Don’t Chat!
Chatting during a court hearing is distracting and can potentially be disastrous.
Chatting takes your attention off of what is going on during the hearing. So while you’re “chatting” you may be missing something important. What’s more, most judges don’t allow virtual chatting in their Zoom room. Unless the judge wants to use the Zoom chat to exchange documents, the chat function will usually be turned off.
Even if the chat is on, though, that doesn’t mean you should use it! It is way too easy to accidently send a message that you intended to only send to your lawyer to everyone. Not only can doing that be embarrassing, but it can also hurt your case.
Also, remember that it’s NEVER appropriate to send a private chat message to the judge. Whatever you want to say to the judge, you need to say to everyone.
14. Don’t Record the Hearing.
Most courts prohibit you from recording any hearing. Ever. Period.
The only one who can record a hearing is the judge. Because of that, even if you DO record a hearing, you can never USE that recording. Posting your recording anywhere will prove that you broke the court’s rules.
It’s also not appropriate to take screen shots, pictures, or audio recordings of your virtual court hearing either.
15. Be Careful Using Breakout Rooms.
Zoom has a function that allows the meeting host to put meeting participants into breakout rooms where they can have private conversations. Those rooms are (supposedly) private and can be a good place to have a confidential conversation with your attorney.
But breakout rooms aren’t always used. Ask your attorney BEFORE your virtual court hearing whether or not the judge will likely use breakout rooms in your hearing.
If your hearing does include breakout room sessions be careful when you leave the breakout room. One way to leave is when the meeting host just brings you back into the main room.
Or, you can leave the breakout whenever you like by clicking a button that says “Leave the Breakout Room.” Just be careful. If you click the button that says “Leave the Meeting” by mistake, you will leave your virtual Zoom hearing completely.
Zoom Court: You Can Do This!
Technology can be intimidating. It can also be liberating.
No one knows how long “Zoom court” will be part of our reality. Chances are though, now that courts across the country are getting used to handling cases virtually, they will keep handling some parts of them virtually moving forward.
The convenience that online court hearings provide is just too great to give it up completely.
So whether you’re in the middle of a court case now, or you think you may be part of one in the future, mastering court video conferencing just makes sense. Once you do, you’ll not only be able to manage your virtual court case, you’ll be able to maximize the benefits that appearing in court online provides.