Preparing for a Zoom experience

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live, work, and interact with family, friends and strangers. Some of these changes have been met with resistance and anger, while others have been a little bit easier to handle. One major development that has impacted the practice of law is the significant increase in virtual court hearings. Most counties across Michigan and the country are utilizing Zoom or other virtual meeting technology to hold appointments, court hearings, mediation, and the like. 

While the medical field has utilized virtual visits for years, the practice of law was slow to join the technology trend. Until recently, most counties in Michigan did not have the capability for online filing of court pleadings; now, it is often required. It can be nerve wracking to have to prepare for a hearing in front of a judge, and it can be equally as confusing to have to do so from your living room or office. Additionally, there is always the etiquette question of whether or not you have to wear slacks if the camera is only from your waist up.

I recently returned to work from a three-month stay-at-home order and have begun to venture into the world of virtual hearings. The most important thing that I have learned over the last few weeks is that mistakes will happen, and it’s simply not realistic to believe everything will go seamlessly. I have double-booked hearings, provided the wrong password, and forgot to turn the video off each time I had to leave the room for something. I’m positive that I will make other stumbles, because I’m human and this is an entirely new way of practicing law. The good news is that not one single person has chastised me, or gotten angry that these mistakes have been made. Most people laughed it off and shared their own stories of trial and error with our “new normal.”

My number one piece of advice to those attending virtual court hearings is to be patient. Be patient with the other parties, be patient with the attorneys, and the judge or referee.  Everyone is new to this format and things will take longer until we become accustomed to it.

Prepare the same way you would for an in-person hearing. The fact that the hearing is virtual does not absolve you from following procedure and simply neglecting to file briefs and bring evidence. The same goes for being on time. Make sure Zoom is downloaded on your computer or phone before the day of the hearing. Test it out with a friend for good measure. Waiting until a few minutes before the hearing and realizing you need to install software is not going to be helpful, and could result in the hearing starting without you.

Appear with video if you can, instead of voice only. I like to see who I am talking to for various reasons – it ensures I am talking to the person that I am supposed to be having the hearing with, and it helps me determine the truthfulness of testimony. If you do appear with video, this is not a movie premiere. While family court hearings can be very entertaining, do not invite a group of friends to hang out in your living room while you have your hearing. Please make sure that your children are not in the room and exposed to the conflict that exists between their parents.

Appearing via video also allows screen sharing, which is helpful for exhibits and other documents that are being shown. I can also show you the draft of a consent order if you and the other party reach an agreement.

Try to be in a reliable area for Internet service so you aren’t cutting in and out during the hearing, and don’t assume the hearing will be faster because it’s virtual. Chances are it may take longer if there are technical issues, or if someone is unfamiliar with the format. 

Virtual hearings likely will be more convenient for those who don’t have access to reliable transportation, or have issues with mobility. It may be difficult for those who are not tech-savvy or do not have access to the technology necessary to join the hearing (don’t forget you can join via a phone call too). I doubt that the use of virtual hearings will disappear when the pandemic is over, and it will continue to work its way into the justice system. Whether you are a fan or not, at least you won’t have to pay for parking.
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Marie Matyjaszek is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own.
She can be reached by e-mailing her at matyjasz@hotmail.com.

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