[ Stephanie Baldwin, 2L at the University of Arizona ]
This past week I had my first trial over Zoom. Ok, so it was a bench trial, and for a class, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still had a sitting Judge, opposing counselors, and witnesses present. I was lucky enough to have completed about seven bench trials while I worked in the Prosecution clinic last fall. So, while I was familiar with the bench trial process, this was still a new experience, because I didn’t have a supervising attorney to help me out, plus of course, it was over Zoom. When we were getting critiques, our Judge commented that he appreciated the practice, because some cases might need to proceed over Zoom (or similar platform) in the near future. If you have your mock, basic trial advocacy, or maybe even an actual trial coming up soon over Zoom, here are some tips to help you out.
Make your Desk “Trial Ready”
I am not sure about you, and I have limited in-court experience, but I was very systematic in the way I had the space in front of me set up. Yes, I had a trial set up, I’d even go far as calling it a ritual. On my half of the desk, I had two copies of all exhibits, had my script laid out in a specific way with checklists, notecards, a highlighter, and a pen. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do things like I usually would have in court, so I adapted my desk at home to mimic my set up as close as possible. Because I prefer not printing things and working from a screen, this actually made my life easier.
I have two screens and highly recommend this setup. I put my trial script in front of me on my laptop screen, so that way, I was always looking at the camera. I kept the Zoom screen on the screen to the side. This is also where I also had my exhibits and a short “common objections list.” I also put my original iPad mini to good use and set it up to be the timer to ensure I stayed on track. I then practiced with this setup to make sure I could do everything I needed to effectively. This included sharing exhibits. Oh, also, as a part of your setup, get a cheap adjustable laptop stand. This allows you to put your laptop at an angle, so the camera is looking at you from eye level, rather than up at you. Also, do not forget water and other necessities. I’ve been sick all week and had lost my voice, so I took a bit of liberty with water and other related supplies on my desk, but the great thing was it wasn’t visible to the court!
Have your exhibits all open in Adobe
Now, for our trial, we had to mark our own exhibits, but one of my favorite things when I was conducting trials for my clinic, was to have all of my exhibits marked as soon as I could, and have them lined up on my desk in the order I was going to present them. I staggered them a bit much like “tabs” in Adobe, so I followed that same process here; just instead of being on my desk, they were on my screen. Whenever I shared, I always first selected the exhibit tab in Adobe, so I could see it on my screen, and then only shared the Adobe window on the screen. Share desktop would have revealed too much, and this kept everything perfectly organized. If I needed to move between tabs to show exhibits I could, without showing any exhibit, I shouldn’t have. It was also effortless to search for a word, highlight the text, and then share it. This was much easier than having to look for an impeaching statement on a paper document.
Anticipate Possible Difficulties
So, my computer’s microphone decided it no longer liked working with Zoom but would do so randomly. I, unfortunately, discovered this while I was in a mock pretrial hearing. I thought no problem, I’ll just call in, and then I couldn’t connect to a cell tower, and of course, my headset was also dead, and I couldn’t find another headset that had a mic. I knew this couldn’t happen on the day of my trial, and I did not have the money, nor could a mic be delivered to me in time. I solved this problem by having my wireless headset on the desk in front of me, it acted just like a stand-alone mic. I just connected the headset mic to Zoom, but still used the computer speakers to hear. I did this because I did not want to be wearing a headset in court, plus I knew I wanted to move my hands to speak and to write, and I did not want a cord getting in the way. Obviously, if you have pods or don’t mind wearing a headset, that is a simple fix, but having the wireless headset in front of you also works well and allows you to remain cordless and without the need to wear a headset.
How Did Witnesses Work?
Witnesses were kept in the meetings “waiting room.” This is a security feature that the host can enable. We had the person who hosted the meeting act as the bailiff. They could let people “in” and “out” of the meeting and mute people when needed. This also made it so everyone else could concentrate on the case, rather than the logistics.
How Did it Go?
Overall, it was not that different from a typical bench trial, again, based on my limited experience. While I missed being next to my co-counsel, we could still send private messages to each other. Please note, be aware these MIGHT not be 100% private and downloadable to the host, so texting might be more secure, but be discreet. I am sure the Judge will not appreciate it if noticed. And although I couldn’t approach the witness to show them exhibits, I thought it was just as effective to show them on the screen. You had to be a bit more watchful of body language to pick up on cues for both the witness and opposing counsel, but it could be achieved. I actually liked using my script on the computer and checking off the boxes. One thing I did do differently, was make a card that had the elements I wanted to hit for each witness, that I checked off as I went, just to make sure I got everything. I also thought it was a great way to get witnesses to come, but I do acknowledge, this could present issues, especially in DV court. I also understand that because I have been teaching and tutoring on Zoom for a long time, I am likely more comfortable with the platform than most, but even those that had just been introduced to Zoom were surprised by how smoothly the trial ran.
Have you conducted a Zoom trial yet? How did it go? I am happy to share my experience and Zoom tips with anyone, so feel free to reach out to me @The2LLife on Twitter or Instagram.