Three Judges' Advice for Appearing via Zoom

By John B. Swift posted 09-01-2020 13:34


My colleagues and I recently spoke to three of the judges we previously interviewed for our Approaching the Bench blog series: Magistrate Judge Elizabeth A. Stafford of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Judge Karen Quinlan Valvo of the 15th District Court of Washtenaw County, and Judge Paul Denenfeld of Kent County Circuit Court.  

We wanted to check in to see how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their respective courtrooms. As expected, all of the judges had a lot to say about the biggest procedural change in response to COVID-19: Zoom hearings. Below are the judges’ thoughts on the most common mistakes attorneys make when participating in these hearings. We will post each judge’s full interview over the next few months.

Judge Stafford: There is certainly a variation in skill level and appropriateness in attorneys’ approaches to appearing via Zoom. Most people have been appropriate, but there have been a few problems. The Zoom setting can make the proceeding appear more informal, so attorneys will start to talk over the judge or opposing counsel in a way that they might not in court. I had someone the other day who was appearing with his client, and he came into the picture with a phone to his ear, made his appearance, and then walked away to continue his phone call. I had to ask him to put down the phone and join the hearing. I’ve also had people join the Zoom call from outside, which often involves a lot of background noise, making it hard for everyone to hear each other and for the court reporter to transcribe the hearing.

In general, I would just remind attorneys to dress appropriately and remember that this is a court setting, even if a nontraditional one. My advice is to treat the hearing just as formally as they would if they were in court, and to show the same respect.

Judge Valvo: Attorneys are generally very well prepared when they appear for remote hearings in my courtroom. It is important for the attorneys to have consulted with each other before the hearing, and to have explained offers ahead of time to their clients. Occasionally, an attorney forgets to mute their microphone while attending to a separate matter. We are able to mute them when we realize it, but sometimes we (and everyone else) overhear information about another case—or the dog’s needs as many are still working from home.

Judge Denenfeld: Attorneys have to remember that these are actual court hearings and to dress appropriately. This has nothing to do with any sort of disrespect for me personally, but an attorney’s appearance reflects their attitude toward these proceedings, which have real impact on people's lives. This can affect how you come across to your client as well. I expect most attorneys do in fact take these hearings very seriously, and it is important to remember that appearances matter in that regard.

Another mistake I see attorneys making is talking over each other. I ask people at the beginning of a hearing to wait until whoever is speaking is finished before they begin talking. It can be tough for attorneys to wait, especially when they have clients who want to hear them talk, but it can create a logistical nightmare.

Lastly, please make sure you are on time for the hearings. Everyone is under a lot of stress right now, and having to wait for someone else can be especially difficult. Zoom hearings are new for everyone, and as we work on figuring it out, we ask attorneys to be on time and to have spoken to their client ahead of time so we can avoid using the breakout rooms.

So please be on time, don’t talk over each other, and avoid the Tigers jersey.