Beginning April 13, 2020, New York state will reopen its courtrooms to civil cases—virtually.
Until now, many dockets have been frozen, with “nonessential” actions for pending lawsuits and criminal cases on hold. But with a new directive from Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, judges will open up remote access to their courtrooms with teleconference technology.
Many other jurisdictions across the country and globally have opened up virtual courts, often as a way to move criminal cases forward and get some people out of pandemic-prone jails. In opening up civil cases as well, the judges of New York state are ensuring continued access to justice, even in trying times.
What will this radically new format mean for lawyers?
In an article about a virtual Commercial Court in the UK, one lawyer notes:
“While my hearings may have lacked the normal drama of a court hearing—eye to eye contact between parties and the formality of the courtroom—that has been replaced for me with the drama of fearing my children are going to burst into the room at any moment and appear on screen in front of the judge.”
The cultural change goes beyond no longer needing to rise for the honorable judge. Some traditionalists will decry this loss of decorum and formality. While others will celebrate how the virtual courtroom increases access to justice, drives down the expense in time and travel for court hearings, and most importantly, ensures the continuity of a crucial democratic institution in a time of turmoil and uncertainty.
But the rise of the virtual courtroom does require some skill and preparation for the times ahead.
How to succeed in the age of virtual courts.
First, become comfortable with a variety of teleconferencing technologies. Some courts are using Zoom, some Skype, while others will develop their own platforms. Understand how they work, make sure they’re downloaded and enabled on your computer. Do a few test calls with someone else in the firm to get feedback on your background, your camera angle, and your audio quality.
Know how to use teleconferencing tools. Learn how to mute yourself if the dog starts barking, how to share your screen, how to send written messages through chat, and how to not turn yourself into a potato.
As you’re learning new technology, remember: this is not just a technical issue that can be solved with technical skills. Lawyers more than ever need the ‘soft skills’ of humor, charm, and personability. They must create a connection with others across distance, and express themselves powerfully through a screen.
Secondly, go paperless. If you haven’t been forced into it already, now is the time to dive into fully digital document management. Use OCR technology to convert paper documents to searchable digital files. Use Vinesign to acquire client signatures on documents.
If this is a difficult change for you, there are tools that can help. Use a tablet with a stylus. This allows you to write in the margin and highlight the text as you’re accustomed to. Learn a few PDF skills so you can highlight, bookmark, redact, sign, and add notes to PDF documents.
There’s a digital equivalent to everything you do with paper. Google it, and a bright teenager will explain it to you.
The future ahead?
This is a moment of rapid transition. When we interviewed Hamilton Chan for the Filevine Fireside, we were talking to a bold pioneer who dared to reimagine how legal education was delivered. Now, only 4 months later, new models of fully-online legal education are being adopted by law schools around the country and around the world.
Questions remain for the coming months and years. How far will the use of virtual courts spread? How long will they last? How will they adequately accommodate the public and media?
After the pandemic passes, even if courts quickly scramble to return to normal, this moment will make its mark. The judicial system is learning that the physical trappings of their office—the building, the podium, the gavel—are not essential to the work of justice. What’s essential are the professionals involved and their willingness to use the technology we already have.
As I write, immigration courts across the US remain open, potentially exposing judges, lawyers, and detainees to Coronavirus contagion. Situations like this will be harder to justify once we have all experienced the fully virtual courtroom. As will policies that refuse to allow lawyers the right to appear by video in situations where travel is difficult.
We have all repeated the cliches about stodgy, tech-averse lawyers and judges. And then COVID-19 obliterated business-as-usual. Now we are witnessing all the ways lawyers can be innovative, flexible, and endlessly creative in their quest to serve their clients.