Reopening the legal world after the COVID-19 quarantine

By Early Langley

The learning curve that courts face

I recently shared with the Presiding Asbestos Calendar Judge of Alameda County, Calif., a few of my thoughts on what reopening courtrooms for jury trials would be like. My email to her was prompted by confusion in everyone’s minds about where and how to start the reopening. Based on reporting remote informal discovery/scheduling conferences in her department, I knew that the courts were struggling with how the jury voir dire process would work. She was happy that I started the conversation and thought that my ideas were informative – so much so that she forwarded them to the court CEO and the presiding judge.

I wanted to share them with you as well and suggest that you consider what your situation might be like as courts and the legal world reopen after the COVID-19 quarantine.

The key comes from virtual Zoom depositions of a high-risk plaintiff

The set of virtual Zoom depositions that prompted the suggestions to her involved my reporting the depositions of a high-risk plaintiff. Based on the square footage of the deposition room, the high-risk plaintiff and his attorney, one designated defense attorney agreed to by all defense, and one videographer were present. All were protected by plastic shields. The size of the room limited my ability to be present. No masks were used by the questioning attorney and the witness so that everyone remotely via Zoom could see and hear. A Zoom PC was placed in front of the witness, and another was placed in front of the attorney. The witness could see any defense attorney on the Zoom feed. Five attorneys viewed the proceedings remotely and took turns asking questions. I was the “host” and had control over who entered the virtual Zoom “room.” With the help of Alameda County Designated Defense Counsel, I obtained appearances before the depo started. Until I admitted them to the “deposition room,” they remained in a “waiting room,” sort of like a breakout room but virtual. I was able to interrupt for a clear record. Every participant used a landline to avoid audio echoing and feedback – a significant problem. The “computer audio” option worked poorly because internet speeds vary. High-speed internet was a critical component for everyone attending.

The reopening of courtrooms using the same metric

It hit me, after my experience doing this set of high-risk plaintiff depositions, that using the same metric in the courtrooms could work. I envisioned a virtual Zoom voir dire process like this: Jurors are summoned to the VD process in groups not to exceed a 6-foot distance from one another in as large a room(s) as possible. They are assembled in multiple rooms. All wear masks. Through virtual Zoom screens placed in every room, they remotely view one prospective juror being questioned at a time in the presence of the judge, clerk, reporter, court attendant, and designated plaintiff and defense counsel. Shields are set up to protect the staff and attorneys. No mask would be worn by the attorney asking questions and no mask would be worn by the individual prospective juror being questioned. I realize that raises eyebrows, but it is almost impossible to decipher what a person is saying through a mask. Accents and quiet, soft-spoken people make it impossible for the court reporter, placed 6 feet away, to hear. The placement of microphones on lapels, a practice only employed by videographers heretofore, would be the new normal.

After the jury is sworn and impaneled, each juror is placed 6 feet apart within the courtroom with masks on. They sit far enough away from attorneys so that they cannot see their computer screens or hear any private conversations. That may limit the number of spectators allowed in the courtroom. It may limit future use of subscriber-only televised trials. Deliberations would need to be held in larger rooms.

Conclusions for the legal world

After doing virtual Zoom depos, I concluded the following, using the same metric for courts, law firms, deposition agencies, and arbitration venues: a room’s square footage dictates the number of people that can be in a room; protective shields should be placed directly in front of the speakers; lapel mics and an excellent audio system are a must; Zoom technology on screens satisfies the requirement that attorneys, judges, jurors, and court reporters see and hear everyone at the same time; meticulous sanitization, masks, gloves and temperature checks become the standard.

It can work. It takes a lot of planning ahead of time, investment in large screens for Zoom, excellent audio equipment, sanitation practices. With everyone’s help and everyone’s patience, we can brave the new world.

Early Langley, RMR, B.A., is a freelance court reporter based in Danville, Calif. She can be reached at early.langley@icloud.com.

Depositions go virtual during pandemic, may remain that way

NCRA President Max Curry, RPR, CRI, President-elect Christine Phipps, RPR, and NCRF Trustee Marjorie Peters, FAPR, RMR, CRR, were quoted in an article posted May 22 by Bloomberglaw.com about the future of virtual depositions.

Read more.

The coming wave of remote depositions

On May 12, JD Supra posted a blog that offers advice about the growing use of conducting remote depositions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more.

Office setups and remote preparation part of downtime

Some NCRA members are using their downtime to be prepared to work at home, by organizing home workspaces and by working on the skills they need to work remotely.

Joyce Shinault, RPR, a freelancer in Anderson, Ind., said she has always maintained an office work area at home, but she has used this time to add a second laptop for doing Zoom and some table space for extra files.

Joyce Shinault, RPR

“Since I had to furlough my office manager, I brought home essential files, etc. ,for doing my own production for the time being,” Shinault said. “What has been most important, yet difficult, is to keep my office area uncluttered. Storage space is a shortage for me.”

She said her office is in her extra bedroom, which also serves as her office/craft/sewing room.

“You get the picture now, right?” she said. “Cluttered and not enough storage!”

Valerie Lawrence, RPR

Valerie Lawrence, RPR, is an official in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. She said she has brought a laptop home before to work on transcripts, but she now realized she needed to set up a better workspace at home.

“I found it necessary to get organized and carve out space to work effectively,” Lawrence said. “I had to change furniture (chairs, desk, file holders) to accommodate working for extended periods (rather than sitting on my bed or living room couch).”

While Lawrence still has a work area set up in the coolest room in the house, a bedroom, she has also now set up a quieter space in another room where she has a steno machine for practicing.

Cheree Murpy-Carlson, RPR

Cheree Murphy-Carlson, RPR, a freelancer in Minneapolis, Minn., had done depos and court hearings remotely via Zoom and teleconference. She bought a refurbished Polycom speakerphone she is using on a landline for the audio feed for both teleconferences and Zoom depos.

“This has provided the best quality of audio compared to the computer or using a phone over VoIP,” Murphy-Carlson said. “I trust the reliability of the landline over the reliability of my cell phone.”

Murphy-Carlson said she is as ready to work remotely as anyone can be.

“There will be situations that arise, but I have confidence in my ability to troubleshoot any issues that will arise. This is a new adventure for us and the attorneys and the witnesses/defendants. If everyone is willing to be reasonable, we can navigate this together and find ways to improve the situation as we move forward.”  

She is currently seeking additional training on “sharing hurdles we are facing as we navigate this new way of working and how others are resolving/handling the issues as they come up.” She said it’s important to think about establishing best practices.

“Some reporters are setting up breakout rooms, some are not. Are there privacy concerns regarding attorney-client communications by doing this?” Murphy-Carlson said. “Does that put the onus of protecting that privacy on the court reporter by providing that breakout room for the attorney and their client to communicate? How are you handling technology-challenged witnesses? Do you have someone monitoring the connection/deposition/hearing besides yourself as the court reporter and uploading the exhibits? What happens if you lose the connection, and the participants are not aware that you lost the connection? Do you have a secondary line of communication set up with the taking attorney?”

Allison Knutson, RPR, an official in Faribault, Minn., had not done remote work previously, but after watching training videos and talking to other court reporters, she now feels confident.

“I feel ‘up to speed’ at this time,” Knutson said. “I will continue with Zoom Q&A sessions with other court reporters.”

Murphy-Carlson said the support of fellow court reporters has been important.

“I am so impressed with how so many court reporters came together through FB groups and helped each other,” she said. “If we don’t lead our clients to this new way of handling depositions/hearings, someone else will and that may not be someone whose first concern is the integrity of the record. Do we want to be Blockbuster or do we want to be Netflix? Someone mentioned that it’s not our job to teach the attorneys how to do this. Well, if we don’t teach the attorneys how to do this, we won’t have a job at all. We need to stay on top of the technology and the best way to use current technology for our clients, whether we are doing depositions/hearings via Zoom or in person. And to continue to do that, we need to work together as a community and share information just as we did on Facebook during the beginning days of COVID-19 using the current technology to get the information to each other as quickly as possible.”

A reminder from NCRA concerning videoconferencing and recording

Your NCRA Board and the CLVS Council are aware of questions of whether the “record” function in a videoconference platform can be employed to create a usable video record.

Employing the “record” function within a videoconference platform to create a usable video cannot be guaranteed. Due to factors outside of anyone’s control, one may be surprised to have no video at all.  NCRA CLVS standards exist in order to provide the client a certified, objectively managed, and backed-up video record that can be used in official proceedings.

The CLVS community has the means and methods to ensure a useable video record separate from the “record” function within the videoconferencing platform. If you have questions about how a legal videographer can safely and properly record remote depositions according to NCRA standards, you can reach out to the CLVS Council directly at clvs@ncra.org. 

Please note, too, that the online Stenopalooza event, held May 2, provided a seminar for CLVS members to further their education regarding proper procedures for the recording of remote video depositions. CLVS members are encouraged to view this seminar when it becomes available on May 6 at http://ncra.inreachce.com.

NCRA Board of Directors

Highlight your business and save in our new digital NCRA Sourcebook

The extended May 15 deadline is approaching fast for submitting Business Directory listings or display advertisements for inclusion in the NCRA Sourcebook.

Due to the changing business environment from COVID-19, the 2020-2021 NCRA Sourcebook will be a digital version, which will include clickable links to make connecting even easier. Having all the NCRA Sourcebook information available digitally will make it even easier to share with new audiences. The NCRA public relations team will be sharing the NCRA Sourcebook link to legal trades, national legal publications, and groups that support paralegals and others in the legal profession.

All members are listed in this directory free. Members can choose to list themselves in other CBSA (core-based statistical area) locations for only $99. Also exclusive to NCRA members is the opportunity to advertise in the Business Directory section of the NCRA Sourcebook.

“We want our ads to be accessible and affordable for all members,” said NCRA Director of Membership Natalie Dippenaar. “We understand that in this time of uncertainty, it is hard to make the decision to spend money on advertising. By pricing these ads at cost, we can offer as many members as possible the opportunity to invest in their businesses and their future.”

These ad specials are available until May 15:

The premium business listing in the Business Directory is marked down from $250 to $100. Advertisers who opt for a premium listing in the NCRA Sourcebook will be listed alphabetically by state and CBSA. Premium listings include the company’s name, address, email address, website, and a description about the services they offer. Premium listings are in black and white for a cost of $100. For an additional cost, firms can also be listed under additional cities and states.

Box listings in the Business Directory are marked down from $395 to $225. Alternatively, NCRA members may upgrade their business listing to a box listing. In addition to including everything in a premium listing, a box listing allows a logo or photo, the option to list under multiple cities, and the option to use an original design or JCR court reporting listing advertisement. Box listings are available in color. This option is now only $225.

Member listings for additional CBSA locations are $99. All NCRA members are listed once in their primary CBSA location, and members who serve larger regions may want to choose to be listed in a second location. For example, a person who works in Baltimore, Md., may want to also be listed for Washington, D.C., if the person finds work in both locations. 

Display advertising ranging from one-sixth of a page to a full page is also available through May 15.

For more information about placing your ad and showcasing your business, download the NCRA 2020 Media Kit or email NCRA Development Relations Manager Jill Parker Landsman at jlandsman@ncra.org.

Five tips for looking great in remote depositions

By Lynette Mueller

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been refining my Zoom setup for remote depositions. Last week I shared how to optimize internet connections. This week let’s talk about video optimization!

Everyone wants to look their professional best when handling depositions for their clients. Even though we are the “silent person” in the legal proceedings, we should take care to ensure that we look the part of being our attorney client’s colleague and partner too. Dressing for success has so many benefits for us as professionals.

  • First impressions count. Because we live in such a visual-centric world today, it is even more important to dress the part. The first judgment by our peers should be a favorable one, and we should command the respect we deserve in the legal setting.
  • Promotes self-confidence. The way you perceive yourself when dressed professionally translates to others as well. The confidence you radiate will have a lasting impression on your clients and potential clients.
  • Stay productive. In these past several weeks of quarantine, I’ve allowed myself a pajama day here and there. The days when I’ve gotten up, showered, dressed, and applied makeup have been the most productive days, by far.
  • Detail-oriented. When taking care with your appearance, it shows that you take pride in yourself. That one simple thing can demonstrate you stand behind your work in the same manner, which gives the client that extra confidence in your abilities.

So with that said, here are my tips to optimize your video setup for remote depositions:

Tip #1

If you’re utilizing the Zoom platform, be sure to take advantage of the Touch Up My Appearance feature. Per Zoom’s Help Center: “The Touch Up My Appearance option retouches your video display with a soft focus. This can help smooth out the skin tone on your face, to present a more polished-looking appearance when you display your video to others.”

For either a Mac or Windows machine, here are the instructions to enable that feature:

  1. Access the Settings in your Zoom application. There are two ways you can get here:
  • In your Zoom client, login, then click Settings , then click Video
  • Alternatively, you can start or join a meeting, then click the arrow next to the video icon and choose Video Settings .

2. In the Video Settings dialog, click Touch up my appearance

3. Check this option to display your video with the touch up.

Zoom remembers your preference and uses it the next time you start or join a meeting on this computer.

Tip #2

When working from a home office, it can be a bit tricky to always have a neat and tidy workspace for remote depositions. If there is a blank wall in your home office, that is the best option. Like in a videotaped deposition, a backdrop is an effective means to clean up your space quickly.

Try to refrain, if possible, from using the virtual background in Zoom, as it does not create a great image of the participants. To really make the virtual background work, be sure to limit any movement. If you move quite a bit, your image will pixelate and/or disappear briefly. If there is no other alternative, find a professional backdrop image to upload and use when you’re on the record and be sure that your space is well-lit. A higher-quality webcam can also be a great addition when using the virtual background feature. Remember to wear a different color for your clothing selection when using the virtual background as well.

From Zoom’s Help Center, here are the instructions for enabling the virtual background:

To enable the Virtual Background feature for your own use:

  1. Sign in to the Zoom web portal.
  2. Click My Meeting Settings if you are an account administrator, or Meeting Settings if you are an account member.
  3. Navigate to the Virtual Background option on the Meeting tab and verify that the setting is enabled. 
    Notes:
    • If the setting is disabled, click the Status toggle to enable it. If a verification dialog displays, choose Turn On to verify the change.
    • If the option is grayed out, it has been locked at either the Group or Account level, and you will need to contact your Zoom administrator.

Tip #3

The best camera angle for a remote deposition or web conference is head-on and eye level. You want the other participants in the proceedings to be able to look at you straight on and not to look either down on you or up your nose. Some built-in laptop cameras may give you a wide angle, which can be unflattering and create a distortion of your image. An easy, no-cost solution to lift the laptop to eye level is to gather up some books and set the laptop on top of them. Get creative!

Tip #4

As mentioned at the start of this article, dressing for success is of utmost importance. While that plaid blazer may be an awesome staple in your professional wardrobe, on camera it could be a distraction for the attorneys and witness. My husband is a photographer, and he recommends to opt for clothing that is plain and a solid color and one that brings out the best you. He says to stay away from stark white or pale colors because they could blend your face into your clothes. Remember, you want to stand out and look your best! Find that perfect shirt, tie, or blouse that you feel awesome in and it will reflect your confidence and personality.

Tip #5

Last but not least is lighting! My setup includes a 3’x4’ soft box. It’s just something I have hanging around the house. Ha! I know not everyone is lucky enough to have a photographer spouse like me. I have the soft box sitting directly in front of my computer for the best light and image during my web conferences.

Even if you don’t have a soft box laying around the house like I do, you can still have great lighting for your remote deposition and use what you have right at home. If there is a window in your room, situate the laptop facing the window, if possible, for a very pleasing effect. Lighting is definitely my friend, and I want it to be yours too! Natural light is often the best and provides a soft glow to your skin. If the light source is to your back, your image will be dark, and the other participants will not be able to see you much at all, as you will appear in silhouette.

What to do if your room has no windows or the window is not situated in an ideal location? Play around with other lamps you have in your home. Remember to consider the light bulb hue as well. There are so many options out there. The color temperature of the light bulb can certainly affect your appearance. Play around and see what works best for you.

Here are some pics showing different lighting setups so that you can understand the difference lighting can make to your photo.


No ambient lighting, except computer screen

For an affordable lighting option, my husband recommends either a Neewer Dimmable bi-color 660 LED video light or the Neewer Ring Light Kit if you want to be camera ready for your next remote deposition.

Desk lamp lighting with soft white light bulb

Soft box lighting

There you have it — my five tips for looking great for your next remote deposition. Happy Zooming, colleagues!

Lynette Mueller, FAPR, RDR, CRR, is a freelance court reporter based in Memphis, Tenn., and chair of NCRA’s Technology Committee. She can be reached at lynette@omegareporting.com.

Insight: Best practices for conducting remote arbitration hearings

On April 21, Bloomberg Law posted an article that provides some tips for conducting remote arbitration hearings.

Read more.

PohlmanUSA hosts workshop on unprecedented worker relief programs

STLtoday.com reported on April 16 that PohlmanUSA, based in St. Louis, Mo., recently presented a workshop to help educate some of the nation’s court reporters about new unemployment benefit opportunities that may be available to them as a result of COVID-19.

Read more.

Early days of videoconferencing

By H. Allen Benowitz

In the March 29 Miami Herald, on the sports page, I came across the article “Video conferencing lets Dolphins connect.” A few pages later, I came across another article, “Children with mental health needs getting help with telemedicine.”

It reminded me that our profession formed the first videoconferencing (VC) network in the nation for the legal profession, which eventually applied to numerous business, educational, and medical applications. I remembered how a few court reporting firm principals invested money, time, energy, and — ironically — travel to meet for more than six months before committing to a serious investment in a little-known industry in December 1989. Since we met in the winter, I had no difficulty convincing all that we should meet at my state-of-the-art video conference center in Miami, Fla., to enjoy the sun.

It was called LINC for Legal Image Network Communications after numerous names were bandied about. Because Dave Jackson observed that I took meticulous notes, he suggested I become president; thus I was the founding president of LINC. In conjunction with the National Shorthand Reporters Association (the previous name for the National Court Reporters Association), and a then-newly established Committee to Study Video Conferencing, headed and comprised of various members and yours truly who chaired its endeavors, our main initial goal was to persuade and convince many that a videoconferenced, videotaped deposition was not going to replace court reporting jobs as well as developing its applications in other markets. As time went on, simultaneous videoconferencing of remote, stenographically reported depositions became an essential part of the legal and litigation process on behalf of our attorney clients to preserve same for court presentation in addition to the official record or the simultaneous stenographic recording and transcript. It’s still difficult to replace the human interface in many technologies today. People: 1; Machines: 0.

Our LINC network grew to 28 independent video conference centers. We were more than a third of U.S. Sprint’s 66-room Meeting Channel VC network at the time. Together with Sprint as LINC’s co-marketing partner, we eventually had connectivity with more than 6,000 VC rooms worldwide before its eventual exponential growth. Who knew then that remote videoconferencing would eventually become a star in bringing people together worldwide for safe virtual meetings in the face of our planet’s most dangerous pandemic, COVID-19?

Some of the early VC systems which we experimented with before settling on a standard for our network were VTEL, Polycom, Sony, Lifesize, etc., through various resellers. Our line carrier, U.S. Sprint, hosted its brick-and-mortar Atlanta, Ga., location to allow us to experience various criteria with each of the aforementioned systems. Everyone was caught up with being on the brink of something new, developing many personal relationships that have continued through the present. Many attorneys who patronized our services in South Florida remind me of how much they appreciated our early investment in equipment so that they could save time and money. It’s a nice feeling.

One VC application which excited me back in the early 1990s was telemedicine. We selected the VTEL product for many reasons: one, its quality, and also because of its R&D in telemedical applications for remote consultations, remote robotic surgery, remote emergency room access, remote X-ray analysis, and compatible electronic white boards, etc. My thirst and curiosity for this application compelled me to rely on Sal Zichi, the vice president of VTEL, who initially gave me a cram education as to its benefits, which I gradually office/home-schooled myself as to its benefits for hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ practices. I am grateful for his friendship today.

Tom Conkling — I believe his title may have been project manager for U.S. Sprint, though his expertise and knowledge was far more extensive — was instrumental in helping us develop LINC’s first videoconference center at my office in Miami, which ultimately was the standard for our LINC network. Another vice president at U.S. Sprint, together with Zichi and Conkling, was responsible for providing equipment, bandwidth, and line carrier services at no expense to LINC so we could promote the industry to our various clients and prospects around the United States.

Business was not very brisk in those early years, and bandwidth was low and expensive [think Max Headroom]; however, U.S. Sprint developed a way to introduce videoconferencing on a down-home level by establishing the popular “Video Santa,” where we all invited our attorney and some business clients to come to our VC rooms on Saturday mornings with their children to visit with old St. Nick at the North Pole. The kids loved it, and so did their parents, many of whom eventually became business users of the service.

Along the way, a highlight and early gratification was being called upon by Linda Quick, who at the time was president of the South Florida Hospital & Healthcare Association. Quick arranged for me to give a lecture and video presentation on the benefits of telemedicine at Florida International University’s north campus before more than 200 doctors, hospital executives, and related industry personnel.

Back in 1989-early ‘90s, this exciting new technology got in our blood and built up an enthusiasm in those passion-filled days. While we did not create the technology, we certainly enjoyed developing various video conference applications then that are still in use today.

All I can say now is, “Who knew?”

Below are the recollected names of our group who merit attribution and meritorious credit for paving the way for today’s lifesaving technology, providing enhanced, informed communication for all. In light of the current pandemic, visual communication is providing much-needed, essential information to help flatten the curve of this additional plague.

LINC

Ray DeSimone, FAPR (R.I.P.)

Forrest Brown, FAPR, RDR (Ret.)

Woody Waga, FAPR, RMR, CRR (Ret.)

Charles McCorkle (R.I.P.)

Ralph Fink, RPR (Ret.), and Karen Carney

Ben Hyatt (R.I.P.)

Jack Hunt, RPR (Ret.), (R.I.P.) and Kevin Hunt

Allen Agren (R.I.P.)

Johnny Jackson

Marge Cunningham (R.I.P.)

Gerald Hanson (R.I.P.) and David Hanson, RPR (Ret.)

Frank Tayloe (R.I.P.)

Dave Jackson

Allen Benowitz, FAPR, RMR (Ret.) and Michael Benowitz

VTEL
Sal Zichi, VP

U.S. SPRINT
Tom Conkling, Project Manager
Don Jones, Consultant

H. Allen Benowitz, FAPR, RMR (Ret.), is an NCRA retired member, currently living in Miami, Fla. This article is adapted from a personal email sharing his memories of the early development of videoconferencing and its use in the legal arena. He can be reached at H-Allen@gate.net.