After a year and a half of virtual court, I finally experienced what it’s like to attend a virtual court hearing. Most of my practice is in estate planning, which doesn’t involve court appearances. However, I occasionally take on matters that do require some time in the court room. Recently, an adoption case that I wasn’t expecting to require a court appearance ended up having a hearing.
The judge set the hearing as a virtual event, and although courts have been conducting virtual hearings for well over a year now, this was my very first experience participating in a virtual court hearing. I had absolutely no idea what to expect.
If you plan to litigate any kind of case, chances are virtual court hearings are here to stay. Many judges (including the one that presided over my hearing) have indicated that they enjoy being able to conduct virtual hearings for some kinds of cases.
If you expect to participate in a virtual court hearing, here are a few tips to help you prepare.
Ask The Clerk
One of the first things I did when I realized I would be joining a virtual hearing was to call the clerk’s office and ask what to expect.
When I first started practicing law ten years ago, I routinely asked the clerks to hold my cases until the very last so that I would have an opportunity to observe the more seasoned attorneys in the court room. The clerks not only obliged but also introduced me to those veteran attorneys and to the judges so that I could learn the ropes a lot faster.
Clerks are usually just as eager to help when it comes to virtual hearings. Although you may not be able to observe other virtual cases, they can at least give you a flavor of what you might expect from your hearing, what the judge in your case might prefer from attorneys, and any other nuances of your case.
Be Early And Prepared
As with any other hearing, it is best to be well-prepared and to be early. There are all kinds of things that can go wrong the day of a virtual hearing. Earbuds may stop working. Your computer may decide to run an update at the last minute, or perhaps the link you entered into your calendar for the hearing wasn’t the correct link.
To minimize the likelihood that you’ll have to scramble before the hearing, be extra, extra early. Test your computer system. Make sure all updates have been completed the day before. Make sure your earbuds are nearby. Ensure your computer’s battery is charged several hours before the hearing or that your power cable is available. Then, check and double check that you have the correct link to your hearing.
If you wait until five minutes before your hearing to log on, you can count on something going terribly wrong.
Have A Plan For Communicating With Clients In Advance
There are a lot of benefits to having virtual hearings. However, one of the decisive challenges of virtual hearings (and one of those things you don’t learn in Evidence class!) is the inability to easily converse with your client. In a physical court room, while a witness is giving testimony, it is common to whisper with your client or for your client to otherwise communicate to you.
In a virtual setting, this kind of discreet communication is difficult. Instead, have an alternative plan. Perhaps you can text with your client on your cell phone if you need to share personal information or feedback to what’s happening during the trial or another kind of messaging service. Maybe you develop a signal of sorts to let your client know that they should get prepared to testify or that the other party will be testifying.
Whatever the case may be, consider how you will communicate with your client during a virtual hearing and make sure your client understands the procedures beforehand.
Lastly, one of the other main challenges of a virtual court hearing are the at-home distractions. I truly love that my children are home with me during the day while I work. However, it’s one thing for them to interrupt a casual client call. It’s another thing for my children to interrupt an important court hearing.
Do yourself a favor and minimize the likelihood of any major distractions. If you have small children at home, see if a relative or other caregiver can take them to the park during the hearing so there’s no chance they’ll barge in during testimony. If you have a dog that goes into guard-dog mode if a bird perches on your windowsill, perhaps see if a friend would be willing to take your dog for a long walk during the hearing.
Most professionals these days have gotten fairly used to the blend of home and work life on virtual calls and other virtual events. Virtual hearings are similar, however to ensure an outcome as positive as possible for everyone in your household, plan ahead to minimize any potentially stressful distractions.
Practice Makes Better
Like anything else, the more you participate in virtual hearings, the more normal they feel. Follow these tips to prepare for your next virtual hearing so that you can start your career in virtual court off on the right foot.
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