While you are finally able to get your hair cut at a salon or barbershop, a bite to eat and drink at an outdoor restaurant, and even a pedicure (thank goodness!), the days of appearing in Court for a hearing, or in an office setting with a large group of people for a deposition or mediation, are likely a long way off. Even though social distancing requirements are being lifted, and even with the Supreme Judicial Court’s updated order of June 24, 2020, indicates that Massachusetts state courthouses will physically reopen to the public for limited purposes, including some in-person proceedings, on July 13, 2020, virtual court appearances, depositions, and other meetings are here to stay.
In order to keep divorce cases moving during COVID-19, many divorce lawyers and the Courts have transitioned away from in-person meetings entirely (except in cases where an in-person meeting is absolutely necessary) and towards videoconferencing. The Judges of the Probate and Family Court in Massachusetts have now all been granted “Zoom” accounts to conduct hearings (motions, pretrial conferences, and even trials) via videoconference. Mediators and conciliators are offering videoconferencing sessions, with the ability to conduct “break out” rooms for privileged settlement discussions between parties and their lawyers and to allow them to conduct shuttle diplomacy. Lawyers are even electing to take depositions via videoconference, with the assistance of software programs that allow the opposing counsel and deponent to see exhibits on the computer screen.
The benefit of videoconferencing, rather than audio only via a telephone call, is that you are able to observe non-verbal cues that you would otherwise miss during a telephone conference. You can see how the other person behaves or how the Judge reacts to something that is said and adjust your position or argument accordingly. However, the decision of whether to participate in virtual mediation or conduct depositions via videoconference should be discussed in-depth with counsel, as the facts of each case are unique, and videoconferencing may not always be the best option. A discussion of that decision-making process could be the basis for an entire blog post on its own! That said, you will likely have to participate in a videoconference at some point.
You have a videoconference in your divorce matter scheduled – now what? Below are a few tips and tricks from the videoconferencing world that you should consider before you log in:
- Location – With many people still working from home, some with significant others or children running around (who are now done with their virtual school learning and with no camp or child care to keep them entertained), finding a quiet location to conduct a videoconference may be difficult. There are a plethora of videos on the internet of a parent on an important videoconference when a child runs into the room and does something funny or distracting. While having your child interrupt a videoconference may be funny after the fact, or be the next viral video, it may not go over as well with your “audience” on the other end of the videoconference. To the extent you can, try to avoid that situation. Find a separate room away from anyone else in the house that is quiet and where you can close the door (and even lock it). Make sure everyone in the house knows you are going to be on a videoconference and even consider leaving a note on the outside of the door to remind them not to interrupt.
- Background – The focus of the camera during the videoconference will be on your face, but it is equally important to pay attention to what may be in the background of the camera shot. One article I read suggested that you should take a “selfie” in advance of the videoconference so that you can see what others will see in your background. Using the “selfie,” remove distracting items from your walls and desk, and avoid displaying things that may be controversial. Do not try to make a statement by placing things purposefully in view of your computer. While you may want to show the Judge or opposing counsel just how much you love your children, or they love you, having an incredibly large, seemingly out of place photograph of you and the children on your desk, is likely too much. The large cat tree sitting behind your chair needs to go (even from an animal lover like myself). Which reminds me, just like keeping children out of the room, make sure your pets are in another room so they are not stepping over your keyboard or barking to get in or out. If you are not speaking during the videoconference, you should also put yourself on mute to prevent any audio interruptions. You could also consider uploading and using a digital backdrop image instead of showing your actual background.
- Image – from wardrobe to lighting to camera angle. I am sure the leisure-wear industry has blossomed in the past few months due to work-from-home requirements. But wearing joggers and a t-shirt during a videoconference is (unfortunately) not appropriate. Ditch the leisure-wear and dig out the professional attire – including pants. You might need to stand up – yes, it may happen – so make sure you are dressed from top to bottom. Try to avoid wearing a black, white, or intricate pattern on the top as this may affect camera exposure and image. For lighting, natural or soft light sources (think window with natural light in front of or beside you) are best. Try to avoid having a bright wall or window behind you as you may appear only as a silhouette. Fluorescent lights and/or overhead lights may cause shadows under your eyes so adjust the lighting to eye-level. If using a desk lamp, try bouncing the lamplight off a wall as opposed to straight at you. When adjusting the camera angle, keep in mind that the goal is to show a triangle from the top of your head to your left and right shoulder. You should not be so far back from the camera that the whole room is in view and your face is difficult to see. The camera lens should be about eye level – if it is too low, try putting books under your laptop to make sure the angle is right. If you need to stand up to view something closer to the computer during the videoconference, make sure you are adjusting the camera angle to follow you – no one wants to see an image of your stomach (and, see above regarding dressing from top to bottom). If you need glasses to see images on the screen, have them with you.
- Practice before you sign in – Before logging into the videoconference, you should experiment with different backgrounds and lighting to see what works best. Test the technology – even do a practice session if you are not comfortable with the platform being used for the videoconference. You may also want to practice with your attorney as to when it is appropriate to speak and when you should remain quiet. At the time of the videoconference, you should close all applications except those you will need during the videoconference. If you have others in your home using Wi-Fi, ask them to log off during your videoconference. Hopefully, now that virtual learning is done for the school year for your children, they won’t be using all of the bandwidth. Having a frozen screen or having to log back into the platform multiple times due to a poor internet connection is less than ideal. During the videoconference, if there is a break and you plan to leave the room or speak with your attorney, be sure to mute your microphone and turn off your camera.
While the above is certainly not an exclusive list of tips for videoconferencing, the more you do beforehand to prepare, the less you will need to worry about on the day of the videoconference. You will likely already be nervous about what will transpire during the videoconference, so if you are comfortable with the technology and your set up, the only thing you will need to think about during the videoconference is what you (or your attorney) are saying.