Monday, May 11, 2020
This is a guest post from Stephen P. Hardwick, an Assistant Public Defender for the State of Ohio.
I had two Zoom oral arguments in the Ohio Supreme Court in the last week of April. I’ll break what I learned into four categories—the physical and electronic set up, practice and preparation, the argument itself, and finally some thoughts on how to use what might be your only chance to be in the office for weeks or months. And just like preparation for a courtroom argument, there’s a lot more to do preparing for the argument than at the argument itself.
- Computer and room set up:
- Regardless of what I say here, when it comes to the camera set up, the background, and the aesthetics of the podium area, you should do what you need do to feel comfortable and professional. I explain here what worked for me, but trust your judgment. For example, even though I can’t imagine that I’d do better sitting down, if you’re more comfortable sitting in front of a web cam, you’ll probably do better that way.
- Use your office. At least in Ohio, legal services are “essential,” and using your office means you don’t have to shush your kids for hours, share a residential broadband connection with their Zoom classes, or worry about a flushing toilet in the background. When I came home from the first argument, my wife told me a neighbor had been doing concrete work the whole time. Try to imagine that when pleading your client’s case.
- If possible, use a high definition web cam and then test whether it the camera angle is better at the top or the bottom of your monitor. Either way, having the web cam close to the screen means that when you look at the judges, the judges will feel like you’re looking at them. I didn’t use a web cam, but I wish I had because it would have provided a higher quality feed. My office is working to find one for the next attorney with an argument.
- Use a moderate-sized monitor. I used a huge wall-mounted monitor, but I found myself looking at the tiny laptop screen that was about six feet away because it was closer to the camera. A moderate-sized monitor will give enough space to see the judges without pushing the camera too far from the center of the screen.
- If at all possible, physically attach your computer to the office’s Internet service. WiFi is not good enough unless there’s no other choice. Cell connections sometimes are faster than WiFi connections, so if you can’t use a wired connection, test your cell connection and compare it to your WiFi. I had to abandon my first test run with Ohio Supreme Court staff because my WiFi connection was too slow. Most of my suggestions are just suggestions. This is not.
- The computer you use for Zoom might be inaccessible for a few hours before argument, so if possible, use one computer for the video hook up and another one for notes, files, and last-minute Westlaw searches. For Ohio Supreme Court arguments, we check in between 7:45 and 8:00 a.m., and then they put us in the Zoom waiting room until our argument time, which might not be until 11:00. During one of my waits, I checked a transcript, which inadvertently changed the angle of my computer screen. Because I was in the waiting room, I didn’t see that I was cut off at the chest until it was time to say, “May it please the Court.” If I had used a different laptop, I would not have had this problem.
- Have someone in the room with a remote keyboard and mouse who can take care of technical issues, like muting and unmuting or reconnecting the video if needed. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to pause the argument to take care of a technical problem. Your assistant can focus on fixing a problem while you continue to focus on arguing your case.
- Unless you have an exceptional microphone, use the dial-in number from a landline or VoIP. It will almost certainly be clearer, and it will be less problematic than using your laptop microphone. Connect using your “Participant ID” so the audio will be synced with your video. If you don’t know what that means, work with the court’s tech staff.
- Set the camera back far enough that it shows the upper half of the podium and a couple feet on either side. I strongly suggest standing at the podium when arguing and sitting when you’re not. Standing makes it easier to use gestures, and it made me feel more professional. If you sit, do so where the judges can see you so that you don’t entirely disappear from their view. Note: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French has recommended either sitting or standing the whole time. She was concerned about awkward transitions. I hope I was sufficiently ready for the transitions that I didn’t bug her, but I was concerned about fidgeting while standing, which would have created its own nuisance.
- Professional virtual backgrounds are perfectly fine. So is an empty or nearly empty room. So is a bookshelf or uncluttered office. Whatever you do, you should be deliberate about what the camera will show. You should also have it ready before the test session with the court so that court staff can give feedback on the background. The IT professional helping us had spoken with our Chief Justice about how to run the argument, so if he asked me to change something, the Chief Justice probably would have, too.
- On the computer you use for the video feed, quit EVERYTHING. You don’t want anything popping up when you are arguing. You also don’t want your computer using its resources for anything but your argument.
- Practice and preparation:
- Attorneys get a test session the week before an Ohio Supreme Court argument. The test is both mandatory and extremely helpful. Michael Woods, the Ohio Supreme Court’s IT person, was great. Picture an Apollo-era mission control chief—white shirt with a tie, slightly horn-rimmed glasses, and a headset with a microphone extending around in front. He was also meticulous and calm. If you don’t have a practice session, ask for one.
- The Ohio Supreme Court required us to use a Zoom account with our real name and a professional-looking profile photo. The profile picture would appear if the video quit. The name appears over you during the argument. If your kids use the same account for school, make sure you don’t have your kid’s name over your feed and that you won’t present yourself to the court with a dragon avatar
- Make sure the court staff knows the number of the caller ID of the phone you will call in from. Often, our office phones give out a different caller ID than the number needed to call that phone. Because the staff had my correct number, they knew that, if needed, they could answer a call from me and immediately plug it back into the arguments.
- Do at least one Zoom moot court with the set up you will use for the argument. Have someone else host the Zoom moot because that’s how the argument will go. If possible, do the moot after the official test session so you will be using the set up that the court staff has approved. The practice sessions and moot courts will help you make sure that you have all the equipment you need set up in the best possible way. During my first practice session, I discovered that I needed a very specific adapter to physically connect to the Internet. You don’t want to wait until argument day to discover that you need some piece of equipment.
- Have a back-up plan in case you end up with a fever or something else that prevents you from using the office. We all could be the next person to get sick, and even a mild cough will keep us out of the office.
- Conduct of the argument itself:
- Be ready to act without the normal cues. In the courtroom, an attorney waits at counsel’s table until summoned to the podium by the presiding judge. In the Zoom world, you need to be ready when she calls you.
- Prioritize audio. At least in the Ohio Supreme Court, if you lose video during the argument, the Chief will keep the argument moving as long as she can hear you.
- I found it helpful to recreate a familiar environment—the podium, sitting while not speaking, and a real glass with cool water in it, just like the Ohio Supreme Court provides during a courtroom oral argument. A water glass might not be important to use, but I bet something small is. Figure out what that is and do it.
- Ohio Supreme Court staff required attorneys to leave a cell phone on to get messages before speaking or if there was a problem. That felt weird to me. I’m paranoid about my phone going off, so I didn’t like leaving it on. But I did.
- Office issues:
- This may be your only chance to personally check on your plants and retrieve stuff from your office. Take advantage of it, but don’t dawdle.
- Follow whatever rules your office sets. That will probably mean you’ll need to take your temperature, wear a mask when not presenting, and sanitize everything you touch. Your “essential” colleagues have to come to that place, so respect them enough to be careful.
- Final note: If something goes wrong, it’s OK. The judges will be patient as long as you’re making a good faith effort. So calmly do what you can to fix the problem. Remember that screen I accidentally put out of adjustment? During my initial argument, I just made sure my gestures were high enough to see. Before I sat down, I stepped forward, adjusted the camera angle, and sat down. No one said anything, and the argument continued. Your judges will show similar patience with you.