Much of the world now finds itself required to practice what has been coined as “social distancing,” also known as self-quarantining. The practice of law is no different.
For many lawyers, legal services haven’t stopped: employment attorneys are working around the clock in response to new legislation and human resource questions; family lawyers are responding to emergency custody questions; domestic violence issues and what is anticipated to be an increase in divorce filings persist; contract lawyers are responding to force majeure clauses; and society’s long list of legal needs goes on and on.
Despite the government’s call to “social distance,” the demand for courtroom litigation still remains. With an increase in legal questions, usually comes an increase in litigation—and sometimes that litigation is an emergency or requires an urgent response from the court. Courts are quickly adapting to the government’s “social distancing” mandates primarily by postponing hearings.
By way of example, in Texas, by order of the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, all in-person, “non-essential” hearings are postponed until May 8 and courts are allowed to conduct proceedings “away from the court’s usual location with reasonable notice and access to the participants and the public.”
In Maryland, by order of the Court of Appeals, all matters scheduled to be heard between March 16 and April 3 are postponed upon further order. Courts could conduct proceedings with “remote electronic means” when possible. In California, most counties are closing their courts for two weeks and postponing jury trials. The California Supreme Court will conduct its hearings remotely, by phone or video.
All courts across the country are struggling to protect individuals from contracting and spreading the virus, while balancing their need to make timely decisions on legal proceedings. Even the U.S. Supreme Court has postponed oral arguments through at least the end of March.
If America as a whole is quarantined and practicing social distancing, how are attorneys and the court system supposed to litigate cases, even if just for those emergencies and essential hearings? Depending on the jurisdiction, some courts are postponing hearing entirely, some are re-arranging their courtroom to maintain distance between court staff and litigants and some courts are turning to technology—for what we hereby call “Tele-Advocacy.”
“Tele-Advocacy” is the ability to continue to litigate cases in an online video conferencing forum—obviously the safest option as it allows people to appear for court by video in the confines of their own safe and sanitary environment thereby stopping any possible exposure to this novel Covid-19 virus.
Imagine a conference call but with the ability to see all of the participants in one screen and, depending on the features of the online platform, to have multiple options such as recording, seeing only the speaker, muting participants and background noise, and tendering exhibits to the court.
As mentioned, these online platforms vary in the types of features and functions. Some of the major “Tele-Advocacy” platforms, along with their pros and cons, are as follows:
- Zoom: One of the leading providers for “Tele-Advocacy” as it is user-friendly, does not require advanced registration for participants, is free for a basic-account (which limits the length of any video conference to only 40 minutes), allows for significant host control, professional set-up, and advanced features such as cloud recording;
- Google Hangout: Included in any Google Suite business package, Google Hangout works similarly to Zoom insofar as the invited user does not need to purchase or have a license to Google Hangout;
- FaceTime: Easily accessible, free, allows for group calls, but not available for those without an Apple device that can support a Facetime call;
- Microsoft Teams: Available to those with a supported Microsoft Account. Microsoft Teams offers seamless integration with a user’s Office 365 account permitting content collaboration with ease. Teams is intuitive, has a professional set-up and offers advanced features;
- Adobe Connect: It may not be as intuitive to use but offers the host of the video conference many options including the preferred layout view. Some of the tabs may seem extraneous and unnecessary;
- Cisco Webex: A free platform for hosting capacity of up to 100 participants, Cisco’s Webex platform is accessible to all. For some, it is user friendly, for others, people claim the user interface design is clunky.
Most of the online platforms offered are user friendly and have a library of tutorials so that participants can learn the features of each platform in advance. Although it may be overwhelming and sound complicated at first, these can be mastered with just a bit of practice.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Sally Pretorius is a family law attorney at KoonsFuller in Dallas. She is certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Elizabeth Lippy is the founder and director of Trial Advocacy & Consulting LLC and assistant director of American University Washington College of Law’s Trial Advocacy Program.