My family has been using Zoom from home quite a bit during the quarantine. My wife, a history professor, Zooms her lectures. class discussions, and student conferences. My children use Zoom for school and to keep up with friends. And I use the software for work meetings, moot court tryouts and practices, and church events.
I thought I was pretty Zoom competent. Then I was assigned my first Zoom oral argument. To complicate matters, in compliance with local regulations and recommendations, we are running our office on a skeleton staff and most of our attorneys are working from home. I am no exception. I had to take things to another level if I was going to use my home office as a substitute appellate venue.
In the end, I put together a fairly professional setup. But I still made some mistakes. I hope you can learn something, both from the good and the bad, if you also need to use your home office for oral arguments.
First, setting up a more professional Zoom appearance will likely require establishing a more controlled environment, including lighting, sounds, and backdrop concerns. Learn from others. Watch some of the Zoom sessions from your court and others, and see what you find works and what does not.
As I watched those videos I saw distracting backgrounds, poor lighting, mic feedback, noisy interruptions, and awkward paper shuffling. I tried to tackle those problems.
In my home office I have both a desktop with a larger screen set high, and a laptop that I move to-and-from work. I setup the laptop as my “Zoom computer,” with the camera slightly above my eye level. That allowed me to still use my desktop screen and keyboard, with the screen just above the laptop camera, which allowed me to keep my eyes close to a “normal” position while looking at my outline and, if necessary, pulling up the record or briefing.
This was handy, cut down on the visual and auditory distraction of trying to shuffle paper, and kept my eyes fairly centered on the screen. But all of that screen glare turned me blue. So next I tackled the lighting.
Most professionals recommend lighting be in front and above the face. So I found a lamp that I could place on my desk and slightly above my screen. I then adjusted the blinds on my windows to cut out a distracting side-glare. The image was still bluer than I would have liked, but the image was crisper and the glare was gone.
Next was sound. My home office is comfortable, but it is not quiet. I have a large window to my left with a lovely view and french doors opening into the entryway of the house. A guest bath is directly behind me.
This means that, at any given time, my dog might decide to visit me at my window. Or a squirrel or happy bird might visit and decide to chat. Likewise, children come and go looking in with curiosity any time the doors are shut, and the guest bath is often used. All of this had to be controlled to the greatest extent possible. Signs go up, conversations are held, dogs are crated, and so on. There is no controlling the squirrels. (Nor the flushing, as we recently learned).
Finally, my office has deep burgundy walls and wood paneling, which, while very masculine, made for displeasing video background. So I searched the web far and wide for the perfect office bookshelf background that could be used without charge, and eventually settled on one that made me look scholarly.
All of this needed to be tested, so I went through some “dry run” recordings and practices and made several fine tunings. My laptop is fairly new, so I did not need to put up a sheet behind me for the virtual backgrounds to work, as some recommend. I did use an ethernet cable instead of a wifi connection to ensure a strong connection.
After numerous tests it was game time. And despite all of the preparation, some of the same problems that have plagued others hit our oral argument. Zoom would highlight the justice’s screens in yellow at times, seemingly indicating that they were going to ask a question. I would stop, not wanting to speak over anyone. And for a few seconds (that seemed like eternity), we just stared awkwardly at each other.
My desktop screen, meanwhile, despite being carefully loaded and setup prior to the argument, kept popping up distracting notifications, and I had trouble loading one file I tried to pull up for quick reference. Shadowy figures moved past my doors, distracting me as they tried to be as nondistracting as possible. And something tried to dig into my office from behind my closed shades.
In the end, we all struggled through it. But going forward, there are a few things I would do differently. I am going to talk to the clerk about potential solutions to the problem of either talking over the panel or constantly stopping when it appears they are trying to ask a question. The lag in both the transmittal and the muting and unmuting of speakers is a problem. In some trial court proceedings attorneys are starting to hold up signs that say “Objection” during live testimony to alert the judge that they want to lodge an objection. Maybe we can have “Question” signs or something similar for oral arguments.
The slightly-off lighting is fixed. A relatively inexpensive LED bulb replaced the old incandescent lamp bulb. With an app I can now adjust the color and intensity of that light, balancing out the lighting problems with a high degree of control.
In subsequent tests I still look a bit washed out, even with well-balanced lighting. Some professionals recommend heavier makeup than usual for women, and that men also consider some makeup to appear more natural on screen. I’m not sure I’m ready for that frontier yet, but time will tell.
I am also either going to go back to paper, or learn how to shut down everything but my PDF viewer and practice more with finding and sharing screens. The live screen was just too distracting, and in the end I missed my binder and written outline. That process is going to evolve.
So will yours. As teachers are being reminded, the changes we are making to our routines during quarantine do not allow for perfection. We have to settle for “good enough” while we struggle to find new best practices. I hope my experience helps you in your own Zoom frontier.
As a final note, the Clerk sent out a “Zoom checklist” that was helpful in setting things up. I will share that with you:
- Create a Zoom account;
- Download the Zoom client or app;
- Watch Zoom tutorials on Zoom’s website or YouTube if you need to;
- Start a test meeting on Zoom to test your microphone and speakers;
- For optimal connection, do not use WiFi;
- Start a Zoom meeting as the host and invite friends to join your meeting;
- Discuss your lighting, background, audio, and video in your test meeting;
- Use a non-distracting background;
- When speaking, remember to look directly at the webcam, not at the screen;
- When not speaking, mute yourself in order to avoid any potential background noise or court personnel will mute you when not talking;
- Alt+A (to mute/unmute audio)
- Alt+V (to mute/unmute video)
- Position the camera at your eye level or slightly above eye level;
- Look professional – the same as if appearing in the courtroom;
- Speak one at a time;
- Give your current contact information (email, cell phone number) to court personnel;
- Join a test meeting with court personnel;
- Suggest that a group email and text group be created for your oral argument in case of technical difficulties;
- Discuss what to do if there are technical difficulties during the oral argument with court personnel;
- Practice disconnecting from and rejoining the Zoom meeting with court personnel;
- Make sure you know who the host of the Zoom oral argument will be and when to expect the invitation for the Zoom session to be emailed to you;
- Write down or print out the contact information for court personnel;
- DO NOT FORWARD ZOOM MEETING INFORMATION. The panel justices, and counsel arguing the case for the parties, will be the only participants admitted;
- Join the Zoom oral argument session at the 10 minutes before argument starts.
Good luck on your next Zoom argument. If you have any tips to share, please feel free to join in below in the comments.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons.)