When considering your team’s technological capabilities and needs as your virtual (or semi-virtual) trial approaches, it’s critical to understand how that trial is going to vary from what you’re used to. A Zoom trial can be unfamiliar and overwhelming, even for those who consider themselves tech-savvy.
Litigation Insights’ presentation technology consultants have assisted clients with numerous trials during the COVID-19 period and have a firm grasp on how Zoom trials tend to function. We also have the advantage of having leveraged streaming and video-conference software in courtroom applications since long before the pandemic. So, we wanted to offer our experiences with these virtual trials to give you a sense of the main things you can expect.
Note that all jurisdictions are different, and there will be certain minutiae that counsel will need to consider given the timing and venue of the proceedings. However, here’s how a Zoom trial typically works:
Initial Decisions & Logistics
- Format. Court and counsel will decide on the format of the trial – that is, the extent to which the trial will take place virtually. A fully virtual trial consists of all parties, counsel, Court, and jury participating remotely. Hybrid trials typically start with a remote jury selection followed by an in-person trial once openings commence; some or all witnesses may participate remotely.
- Platform. Counsel will familiarize themselves with the Zoom for Government platform (ZoomGov.com), as well as the platform the Court uses for submitting exhibits (such as Box.com, among others). The Court will provide links and access information to counsel, witnesses, etc.
- Remote location(s). Health is of course a chief consideration when planning your Zoom trial, but ideally, counsel is able to set up the majority of their team in one location (while adhering to CDC guidelines). For example, if you can utilize your offices, choose one office or small conference room as the presenting room, and a larger conference room for other counsel and team members to listen to/watch the proceedings; for any key witnesses attending with counsel, select a third room for their testimony.
- Bandwidth. Counsel will confirm that they meet the minimum technology and internet bandwidth requirements (as provided by the Court) to participate remotely. Minimum speeds tend to be around 10 Mbps (up/down); optimal speeds are around 50 Mbps (up/down).
- “Zoom Studio” setup. To maximize the ease of presenting, appear at your most professional, and limit potential technical issues, consider setting up a more formal “Zoom studio” in your chosen location. This includes determining optimal lighting, AV equipment, and camera positioning.
- For assistance with this aspect, one of our visual communication consultants can bring, set up, and run a complete, temporary Zoom studio at your location. We supply production-quality equipment, carefully test each element, and employ a redundant setup for instant switching to a backup system in the event of a technical issue. During presentations, we can also assume the role of technical director and hot seat operator to switch between cameras, presenters, documents, testimony, exhibits, slides, etc. on cue.
- No matter your setup, the chief goal of any Zoom studio should be to ensure presenters can focus on making their best case, rather than worrying about the technological elements.
During the Zoom Trial
- Formal attire. Participants should dress in the same manner they would if they were participating in person.
- Entering the courtroom. Each day, participants will enter a virtual “waiting room,” and will be admitted from that waiting room into the virtual “courtroom” when appropriate. Counsel are responsible for notifying witnesses when and how they are expected to report to the virtual waiting room.
- Presenting your case. The optimal setup for presenting your case is to stand during opening and closing and sit during direct and cross. You’ll want either a table-top podium or a banker box to hold your notebook or computer at eye level while standing.
- Objections. Interrupting or speaking over a witness or fellow counsel happens in person, but it’s especially difficult to avoid over Zoom due to the minor lag time. One solution is to address this reality in your pre-trial conference with the Court and agree on physically raising your hand when objecting. Further, advise your witnesses to pause a moment before answering questions, so they don’t risk missing a sudden objection.
- Exhibits. All exhibits will be numbered and uploaded to the Court’s online repository at the end of each day of testimony.
- Non-presenter etiquette. Non-presenting counsel and support staff must mute their microphones and deactivate their cameras unless instructed otherwise by the Court.
Other Technical Considerations
- Zoom screen name. Make sure your screen name is set to your first and last name, rather than something confusing or unprofessional (i.e., not “TrialJunky1337” or “KPopLover55”).
- Mic feedback. Active participants using multiple devices in close quarters (like a single office) should avoid feedback issues by using headphones, or by using the mic/speakers on a single device at a time.
- Annotations. Decide how you’ll annotate the documents you present on screen: Will you use the Zoom for Government tools? Will your hot seat operator handle it?
- Practice run. Do a full rehearsal of jury selection and your trial presentation. Even if you’ve taken part in hundreds of trials, it’s just not the same over Zoom. Performing a mock virtual jury selection can be one helpful tool to get a feel for how it will be similar and different.
- Team communications. Counsel should have a secondary platform for the trial team to communicate privately, whether by text message, Microsoft Teams chat, Google Hangouts, etc. Be mindful not to overuse it – or use a separate channel – to avoid overwhelming the presenting attorney with messages.
- Tech check. Counsel should perform a “tech check” in advance of meeting with the court via Zoom to test internet speed, lighting, camera angle, audio, etc. This goes for your witnesses’ setups, too.
- Tech troubles. Be prepared nevertheless to troubleshoot tech problems on the day of. They happen. Having a trained presentation-tech expert on hand can ensure your team can focus on the trial itself.
Hopefully, the guidelines above will help prevent unwelcome surprises and provide a foundation for preparing yourselves, your witnesses, and your offices for an upcoming Zoom trial. And, remember that while the COVID vaccine’s widespread distribution over the next few months will likely reduce the number or extent of virtual trials over time, it appears virtual hearings will be around indefinitely – so many of these guidelines will continue to apply.
We also encourage you to reach out to our technology consultants to learn more about how we can assist your team with the entire process – from supplying, testing, and troubleshooting the technology; to creating professional presentation “sets” for your attorneys and witnesses; to managing your exhibits and virtual presentations in real time; and beyond.
By: Adam Bloomberg – Managing Director of Visual Communications