As U.S. courts explore ways to reduce foot traffic during a global public health crisis, they are adapting to the use of videoconferencing at breakneck speed.

On March 23, 10 days after issuing an emergency order authorizing the use of videoconferencing for civil proceedings, Texas civil courts held 101 Zoom conferences in a day. Less than two months later, that number had increased to over 1,000. In recent weeks, states such as Illinois have made permanent revisions to their court rules to support the adoption of remote hearing technology, and expand it to criminal cases as well.

Zoom mock hearing
Judge Amy McFarland of the 11th Circuit Court of Illinois (top right) leads a mock criminal hearing held remotely using Zoom.

Comfort with virtual hearings is quickly becoming a basic technological competency, but it shouldn’t be intimidating. Many of the procedural details are left to the hosts of the conference, with relatively little for attorneys to figure out. With a little practice, you might find that appearing via Zoom or another videoconferencing solution is more convenient and less complicated than showing up at the courthouse.

This basic prep guide for Zoom hearings will help you understand how this popular videoconferencing technology is being used in the context of the United States courts. It draws primarily on an excellent judicial training presentation by Assistant Judge Amy McFarland of the 11th Circuit of Illinois, as well as several relevant articles from legal technology publishers.

While we won’t cover every last feature in detail, we will set out to prepare an attorney user with the fundamentals they will need to perform confidently in their first virtual court appearance.

 

Basic requirements to join a Zoom conference

To join a Zoom video conference, participants will need:

  • An Internet connection
  • Speakers or headphones (for hearing other participants)
  • A microphone (for speaking to other participants)
  • A webcam (built-in or USB)

While an account is not always required to join a Zoom conference, certain courts may require them for security reasons. To prepare for this possibility, attorneys should consider creating a free personal Zoom account.

Free Zoom accounts have a time limit of 40 minutes for any hosted conference, but this limit does not apply to users joining a conference hosted by a paid account. In any case, McFarland noted, it’s not hard for courts to circumvent the restrictions of the free plan.

“When the hearing exceeds 40 minutes, everyone logs out, logs back in and they proceed,” McFarland said.

 

Alternative participation via telephone

McFarland acknowledged that not all parties will have access to a web-enabled device with a microphone. In some of these cases, the court may still be able to allow participation in a virtual hearing using a dial-in number. You will still likely need to enter a password to join.

Unless the host has specifically masked dial-in numbers in their Zoom settings, your phone number may be visible to other participants. If you want to ensure it remains private, it’s a good idea to confirm with the court that they will be using the “Mask phone number in the participant list” setting in advance of the hearing.

 

Before the hearing

Zoom currently allows meetings to be booked in 30-minute increments. However, to provide participants with ample time to join and get settled, some courts may issue an invite that starts up to 30 minutes before the actual scheduled hearing time.

Be sure to check your official start time prior to the hearing, and arrive at least 5-10 minutes early so you can test your connection and setup.

Use this time to ensure the room is free of visual and audio distractions, including pets or people coming and going. Ensure that the main source of light in the room is behind (not in front of) the camera, which will prevent your face from being enveloped in shadows.

If you haven’t already done so, consider adding a professional headshot to your Zoom profile by navigating to Settings > Edit Profile. If you need to deactivate your camera momentarily during the hearing, the profile image will replace your video feed and minimize the appearance of a disruption.

You may also wish to prepare a business-appropriate “virtual background” (Settings > Virtual Background) to replace the environment behind you with a more flattering image or video. Not all courts will allow you to use this feature, so it’s still important to prepare the area in front of your camera as if the judge will see it.

By default, the last virtual background you used will reappear on you next conference unless you reset it. If you use more casual backgrounds for chats with friends, get in the habit of switching the background to ‘None’ before you log out.

 

Security and visibility

While dialing into court remotely removes many physical security risks, it introduces some online security considerations as well.

Early in 2020, news outlets were abuzz with reports of “Zoombombing”—wherein uninvited guests could cause havoc after joining a conference without permission. This could happen when no password was set for the conference, allowing pranksters to randomly type in different meeting room codes until they found a live session.

Zoom responded by embedding passwords for each conference into each invitation link, making it easy for invitees to join a password-protected conference where “Zoombombing” is not a threat. McFarland recommended that courts don’t alter this setting.

Courts such as the 11th Circuit also take advantage of Zoom’s “waiting room” feature, which allows the hosting judge to screen participants from a queue before placing them in the live videoconference. If they prefer, they can also specify that each conference is hosted on servers located in countries with strong data protection laws.

In many states, it is illegal for participants other than the court reporter to use recording software to capture a hearing. However, if the hearing is to be publicly available, participants may ask if it will be streamed live on a platform such as YouTube for outside observers.

 

Procedural disruptions

McFarland explained that judges and court staff have a number of tools for maintaining order during a virtual hearing.

As hosts, court staff can:

  • Mute participants. McFarland called this “the No. 1 setting” she has used when side conversations threatened to derail the proceedings.
  • Disable video. If a participant’s video feed becomes distracting, it can be deactivated.
  • Lock the meeting. This prevents any new participants from joining the conference.
  • Place participants on hold. If the court staff needs to step away from the bench or pause proceedings, they may do so.
  • Disable private chat. This prevents participants from typing messages to one another that can’t be seen by the host.
  • Remove participants. Finally, if a participant becomes exceptionally disruptive, he or she can be removed from the conference. This may be accompanied by sanctions for contempt of court.

 

“Once you are in the virtual courtroom,” McFarland said, “you become your own virtual bailiff.”

 

Useful shortcuts during the conference

As a participant, there is less for you to manage while a videoconference is taking place. A full list of shortcuts for all platforms is available here, but here are some of the basic controls for Windows users:

  • Mute/unmute your microphone: Spacebar
  • Video on/off: Alt+V
  • Full screen on/off: Alt+F
  • Jump to chat: Ctrl+T
    • Opens a window where you can type messages to other participants.
  • Switch to Active Speaker view: Alt+F1
    • Focuses your screen on participant at a time; typically the one who is speaking.
  • Switch to Gallery video view: Alt+F2
    • Divides your screen into equal-size camera views for all participants, regardless of who is speaking. Think “The Brady Bunch” or “Hollywood Squares.”

This article is excerpted from InfoTrack’s free eBook, ‘How to prepare for a Zoom hearing.’ The full eBook also includes how to share documents and hold private conversations, and a recording of a mock Zoom hearing.

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