2020 has been a time of change.
One change generated by the increase in working from home was an explosion of videoconferencing. Many people whose prior videoconferencing experience had been limited to a few online seminars or product demonstrations were soon having multiple videoconferences each day. Online clothing distributors reported sales of tops, but not complete outfits, surged. Jokes abounded about attending meetings without pants. Terms like “Zoom Fatigue,” “Zoombombing,” “virtual happy hours” and others entered our business vocabulary.
As much as we long for life to “return to normal,” it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that this videoconferencing adoption is a new, permanent feature of our professional lives.
There will now be times it is preferable to videoconference, and most lawyers now have experience with using the tools to accomplish that. You may have an elderly client whose health situation is very high risk who wishes to limit possible exposure to COVID-19 or a lawyer may have similar concerns, but there are other reasons to employ this communications method. A day of heavy rain and minor flooding might convince you to change an in-person conference to a videoconference. A long-term client who is a busy business owner may agree that eliminating the 15-minute drive across town between your offices is a better plan for routine meetings.
Setting up a videoconference is a basic skill for most lawyers. Larger law firms may have staff assigned to set up and manage the videoconferencing, but even in that setting, a lawyer must be able to do it themselves on short notice when required.
So, let’s briefly cover the tools a lawyer needs to consider for the new reality of videoconferencing today.
I’ve long advocated for lawyers using laptops for their primary computer. When “work from home” materialized, many lawyers without laptops purchased them. Having a dedicated law practice computer that others in your quarantine were not allowed to use was a good plan for client data security and other reasons.
Therefore, a good business-class laptop is the foundational piece of hardware. Those shopping for Windows 10 laptops will be well served to get a solid-state hard drive (SSD) and at least 16 GB of memory. The business-class laptop will likely have a decent webcam built in and upgrading to a more powerful video card will have benefits for videoconferencing.
Next, we cover a few topics for the legal profession that read like some lecture in film school.
In March and April, online supplies of webcams sold out as those working from home embraced videoconferencing. The question of “What’s the best webcam?” gave way to “Where can I buy a webcam?” Supplies are being replenished, but there are still many potential buyers, so choices may be limited.
A business-class quality laptop purchased within the last several years undoubtedly includes a pinhole webcam built into the monitor. These are generally high-quality cameras that do a great job. If you have a cheap laptop however, you may also have a cheap built-in webcam.
Either way, most lawyers will now want to buy at least one additional external webcam. The most persuasive reason is that videoconferencing is now a mission-critical activity. Therefore, you must have backups and at least two ways of doing everything. Buying a higher quality camera will give you many additional options, including better autofocus than your computer’s camera. If you’re using a laptop, you want a webcam with a stand that also hooks over the top of the laptop monitor.
You need not break the bank, but you shouldn’t buy the cheapest webcam available. The availability of certain models may be limited. If you don’t like the first camera you purchase, you shouldn’t hesitate to buy another one.
Some have created full-length feature films only with an iPhone for recording videos. They probably used many advanced video tools that most lawyers don’t. One reason their videos “look” better than ours is that they used good external microphones rather than relying on the built-in microphone in the phone.
While the camera built into your laptop may be a good camera, the microphone built into your laptop is probably a lower grade. In addition, it is not situated well for video production. We’ve seen many examples of someone speaking who turned their head away from the computer and their voice was lost.
Therefore, you will definitely want to buy at least one external microphone or headset including a microphone. I like the Snowball line from Blue Microphones, but many lawyers think it is too prominent and noticeable in the law office and choose something like the MXL Conference microphone. Make certain to buy a microphone that plugs into the USB port.
A nice headset with a microphone will be the solution for many. It is the choice of many professional broadcasters. There are several advantages to using a headset. Having just one device for broadcasting and listening makes life simple. By using a headset there’s also no external sound, so no one else can hear what is being said if you are working from home, for example. There’s also no chance of the microphone picking up the speaker’s sound and creating a disturbing feedback loop.
Personally, I prefer a fairly substantial headset with padded foam ear covers and a boom style microphone built in. Some people hate headsets and they are certainly incompatible with certain hairstyles, but day in and day out, I’d rather have something on my ears for hours while I’m working than inside my ears. Headsets also solve one problem that we’ve seen in several online CLE presentations as the speaker turns away from the microphone and their voice can no longer be heard.
There are many headsets available. You can find a decent headset for under $100, but because of the popularity of online gaming there are many options for high-
performance gaming headsets.
We should add “I can rattle papers loudly on my desk without others hearing or the camera focusing on me because of the papers’ noise” to that list of advantages of using headsets as opposed to the laptop’s built-in microphone.
I’ve participated in many videoconferences. Those attending lawyer videoconference meetings in March were just happy if they had a webcam and microphone as others did not yet have those tools. There was no real judgment as to picture quality. There were always a few attendees whose setup had them bathed in an eerie blue monitor glow, and there were several lawyers who positioned their camera so you saw the top of their head and their ceiling. Others had distracting backgrounds in their videos because their home office was not designed to be a video production studio, after all.
Now that videoconferencing is becoming institutionalized, you may want to consider improving your conferencing quality if you are communicating with clients or doing virtual court appearances. Buying a good camera is the first step but lighting cannot be ignored. You do not want a brightly lit window behind you, so avoid that if you can, or at least close the blinds. Some lighting will greatly improve your appearance. There are many inexpensive ring lights made for use with smartphone recording or sometimes taking the shade off a lamp or having a white piece of poster board reflecting some light on you can help. Sure, you are a busy lawyer, but you can spend an hour figuring out the setup that makes you, as your client’s representative, look good, even if you don’t turn the lighting on for every videoconference.
VIRTUAL BACKGROUNDS AND GREEN SCREENS
Pay attention to your background. You have the option of a physical or virtual background, but you want to make certain that your actual physical background is not too distracting. Now we see many celebrities and analogies live broadcasting from their homes. Some have obviously staged their backgrounds and sometimes reorganize the books and decorative items between appearances. Did you know that there is a Twitter account, Room Rater, with almost 250,000 followers that posts reviews of videoconferencing backgrounds of famous and not-so-famous people?
A poor background can be distracting. Zoom and other videoconferencing solutions allow one to use a photo or video as a background. A lawyer whose job involved many videoconferences joked that by the first week or so of April, every Zoom conference began with each attendee showing off their latest Zoom background. Star Wars, Broadway and other entertainment franchises got into the act by providing images people could use to put themselves in a favorite fantasy or theatrical location.
There are drawbacks to virtual backgrounds. They use precious bandwidth. So, if you are having video or sound issues on a call, turning off a virtual background may help. As we have already seen, the virtual backgrounds are not perfect and quick motions may reveal parts of your actual location as well as creating other odd video effects.
Some law firms have no doubt already created plain backgrounds with the law firm logo for their lawyers to use for videoconferencing.
Green screens are used in movie-making to create special effects. It is how Superman flies across the skyline of Metropolis and how nearly every movie or TV scene you have watched with characters talking and driving provides the images of traffic around the car. The first rule of using a green screen is to wear nothing green. There are many online explanations of green screen technology.
Some law firms may invest in green screen technology. Most lawyers won’t see the need to purchase a physical green screen, although larger law firms setting up dedicated videoconferencing locations will likely consider this. For example, a lawyer who presents many online CLEs might use a green screen to create the effect of the lawyer being visible on one-third of the screen and the presentation on the other two-thirds. This would showcase the lawyer better than the tiny thumbnail of the presenter that would be the default view for many attendees.
One friend and professional colleague, Craig Ball, on his Ball in Your Court blog, gave a great step-by-step explanation of how this works in his post on the Advanced Zoom “Weather Map” Technique. This green screen technique is the same as used by your local TV weather broadcaster.
There are several videoconferencing packages and as videoconferencing increases, a smart lawyer will have accounts set up with more than one service to have appropriate redundancy – just in case.1
Oklahoma lawyers are reminded that Rule 34 of the Rules for District Courts of Oklahoma, Videoconferencing in the District Courts, should be consulted when considering videoconference hearings of any kind. The Third Emergency Joint Order Regarding The COVID-19 State of Disaster (SCAD no. 2020-36) issued by the Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reaffirms that Zoom is disallowed from the district court computer systems. If you want to schedule a video court hearing or want to include a district court judge in a meeting, you cannot use Zoom.
Having said that, Zoom is the most popular and, in the opinion of many, easiest to use videoconference tool. There is a free version. After some initial criticism, Zoom has made several security upgrades and added true end-to-end encryption. But lawyers who plan to handle hearings and other aspects of litigation in the state district courts will likely only consider Zoom as a secondary videoconferencing tool.
Microsoft Teams is an option. Microsoft Office 365 is being rebranded as Microsoft 365. Subscribers receive access to Microsoft Teams, which includes a videoconferencing tool designed to work with the other 365 tools, like Outlook. To me, it is somewhat surprising that even the lowest tier subscription, Microsoft 365 Business Basic at $5-6 per month, provides that a subscriber can “host online meetings and video conferencing for up to 250 users.” (We still suggest Microsoft 365 Business Standard or Premium for lawyers since those subscriptions include Microsoft tools like Word, Outlook and PowerPoint.) If you are not a 365 subscriber, you can sign up for a free one-year subscription to Teams.
Other videoconferencing service providers include WebEx, GoToMeeting, BlueJeans, Adobe Connect and Skype. Google’s G Suite Meet (formerly known as Hangouts Meet) is free. Each service has various strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage you to pay for a monthly subscription for the first few months before committing to an annual contract for a commercial service.
For example, I don’t like that BlueJeans only shows the videos from nine people in the meeting, even when there are more participants. It does automatically display the video of anyone speaking (or rattling the papers on their desk too loudly) and I have seen confusion more than once as someone thought another lawyer left the meeting because they were not featured in the favored nine. Other lawyers may believe they will never host a meeting with more than three or four participants and have no concern about that. Many Oklahoma lawyers are more familiar with BlueJeans since the OBA uses it for video meetings.
We are also seeing the emergence of new videoconferencing solutions targeted to the legal profession. We will monitor that. But for now, great ideas for improving videoconferencing will be incorporated by most platforms and the case for “legal specific” videoconferencing does not seem compelling.
FINAL VIDEOCONFERENCING TIPS
The first rule of a good videoconference broadcast is to set the camera at eye level. (That’s also the second and third rule!) There’s really no exception to this rule. Whatever it takes, make this happen. Lower or raise the height of your office chair. Put the camera on a stack of books. Your face should be centered in the screen. No one wants to hold a serious conversation with you while the camera shows the inside of your nostrils or the top of your head.
Consider paying for a subscription as opposed to just using the free level of service. One advanced feature lawyers will want to have available is the ability to record the videoconferences and save the recording, which may not be available on free accounts. Suppose you want to document a client giving you authority to accept a settlement offer or take another action, or perhaps you just worked out a hard-fought settlement agreement by videoconferencing mediation. You will want a written, signed agreement, but video documentation while everything is fresh in memory can also be very handy. If a potential witness gives you a valuable statement over a video connection, the next step, if appropriate, may be to ask if you can record them making that statement.
If you are using video recordings to document something, always begin the recording by reciting the date and time, all participants in the conversation and asking all participants to acknowledge they understand you are now recording this communication.
The Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct provide in Rule 1.6 Comments 16 and 17 that a lawyer “act reasonably to safeguard information relating to the representation of a client against inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure by the lawyer or other persons who are participating in the representation of the client or who are subject to the lawyer’s supervision.” This is not a strict liability situation, but the lawyer should pay attention to whether the service offers end-to-end encryption and its suggested best security practices, like requiring passwords for meeting attendees.
Videoconferencing is here and will have a big impact on business operations for the foreseeable future. While it is quite simple (most of the time) to attend a videoconference that someone else sets up and invites you to attend, the majority of Oklahoma lawyers should be able to schedule their own videoconferences when needed and should have good hardware and software tools to use with videoconferencing.
1. Murphy’s Law of Videoconferencing states the more critical a videoconferenced meeting or hearing is, the more likely your normally well-functioning videoconferencing software will mysteriously quit. Yes, I made that rule up, but you still want to have two videoconferencing services you can use in case you have to go to Plan B.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — August, 2020 — Vol. 91, No. 6 Online Version