5 Tips for Virtual Trials

Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP
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Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP

Many custody and divorce trials are occurring virtually.  Trial by video is a new frontier and another creation of living during a pandemic.  Virtual trials are different from in-person trials.  Your judge is likely very comfortable with virtual trials because they are presiding over them regularly.  Because you are not as familiar with a virtual trial, you need to make sure you are prepared.  Here are five tips to keep in mind. 

  1. Know the Platform.

Do you know which platform your court will use?  Courts are using a variety of video conference programs from Zoom to Microsoft Teams to BlueJeans to Webex.  Make sure you know which platform you are using and how it works.  Have the app downloaded to your device prior to the date of the trial.  If possible, practice with the platform. 

If other people use your device, check the settings at the start of the day. This is especially true if children use the platform you will be using for trial.  You do not want to have an inappropriate filter or screen name when you log in to the trial. 

  1. Be prepared to review exhibits during trial

During testimony, there will likely be documents you need to refer to.  These are documents called exhibits.  You should know whether you will receive the documents in hard copy or virtually. 

Some courts require virtual exhibits to be compiled into a single PDF document with bookmarks.  That can make it easy to navigate the exhibits.  Though this can be difficult if you only have one screen because it is difficult to see the video stream and the exhibits at the same time.  You might want to consider downloading the exhibits to a separate device.  Then you can view the video trial and exhibits at the same time.

If you are receiving a hard copy of the exhibits, have them nearby for the trial.  Make sure they are organized and easy to find.  You want to make sure they are organized in a fashion that you can navigate easily. 

  1. Know how you will communicate with your lawyer during trial

When you are in a courthouse for a trial, you often pass notes and have brief conversations with your attorney during trial.  When you are virtual, you are likely not in the same room as your lawyer.  This makes communication more difficult. 

If you are participating in the trial from your lawyer’s office, you still need a plan for conversations.  You need to know if you and your lawyer will be in the same conference room or if you will be in separate rooms. If you are in the same room, passing notes might work.  Though whispered conversations could be difficult as the device’s microphone might pick up the conversation.  Make sure you know how to get a hold of your lawyer; do you call them or ask the receptionist. 

If you are attending trial virtually from your home, you will need a more detailed communication plan.  Your attorney may instruct you to communicate by email, text, or a specific app or program.  You may touch base by phone at each break.  Know how your attorney expects to hear from you. Know when you should be expected to answer your phone. 

No matter where you are attending trial, make sure your device is muted before you have a conversation with your lawyer.  You do not want confidential conversations to be broadcast to the judge or opposing counsel. 

  1. Know your Judge

Knowing your judge is important whether you are in person or virtual.  Many judges have created operating procedures that describe their preferences during virtual court appearances.  Some judges send out virtual trial tips with the trial link or in their pretrial orders.  Read all tips and instructions sent by the judge.  Knowing the judge’s rules and preferences helps a trial move smoothly and it impresses the judge.  (And who doesn’t what to impress the judge hearing their case?)

  1. Set up in advance

Make sure you are set up in advance.  You should start with the physical setup.  If your Wi-Fi is not reliable, become familiar with using your smartphone as a hotspot.  If there is going to be background noise, make sure you have headphones with a microphone. Know how to mute your device’s microphone, and when muting yourself is appropriate.  Your device needs to be charged and you need to have the charging cord nearby.  Have water nearby.  Check the lighting in advance, to make sure the court can see you.  No one else should be in the room with you while you are virtually attending court. 

Have a childcare plan if you have kids.  Many judges say they expect the parties have made childcare arrangements so children do not interfere with the trial.  You should be prepared to be out of the earshot of the children, they should not be hearing the trial and they should not be heard during the trial. This is often difficult in a pandemic, so plan in advance.  If your child is attending in-person school, make sure you have plans for school transportation and plans if school changes to a remote day last minute. 

Do not forget your furry friends.  Try to have them somewhere that will not interfere with trial.  You may need to arrange for a dog walker or limit your cat’s access to the room where you are testifying.

Remember, virtual trials are still trials.  The same basic rules apply.  Make sure you are appropriately dressed.  Be respectful of the Judge.  Mind your manners.  It is important to speak only when it is your turn; this allows the court reporter to transcribe all the words spoken. 

If you have questions about your upcoming virtual trial, reach out to your attorney.  Your attorney can help you to navigate virtual trial preparation. 

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