By Chris Stiegemeyer, Director of Risk Management
“’Manners…Maketh…Man.’ Do you know what that means?”, asked Harry “Galahad” Hart of the hooligans threatening Gary “Eggsy” Unwin as the two enjoyed an ale and a quiet talk in an empty pub in the movie Kingsmen: The Secret Service.
For many judges, a man’s (and woman’s) manners that maketh an attorney include dressing professionally when participating in video-conference hearings and dockets. Florida Judge Dennis Bailey posted a note recently in which he observed that some attorneys were attending video-conferences in casual clothing with “no concern for ill-grooming”, and “in bedrooms with the master bed in the background.” One male attorney appeared shirtless and a female attorney appeared while still in bed and under the covers. The judge also pointed out that, “putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit.”
The judge concluded his note by asking attorneys to treat court hearings as court hearings, despite the fact that the hearing was a videoconference.
Besides donning appropriate attire, lawyers should further consider how they can be most effective in their videoconference appearance.
For example, the perspective others have of you in a video-conference is what they can see through your camera. That means, in order to connect with the viewer, the camera is where you should focus your eyes whenever you are speaking. The camera should be placed so that your eyes are in the top third of the screen without cutting off the top of your head. It should be placed at or near eye level to avoid the “What Timmy saw when he fell down the well” affect. That is, if the camera is too low and aimed skyward to get you in the frame, your viewers are going to feel as though they are staring up at you. Plus, looking down at the camera will add several chins to your face! So put those old hardback reporters to use one last time, as a platform to raise the height of your laptop.
The camera of course, will also give viewers a glimpse at whatever is in your background. Your cat strolling though the scene may be an “Awwww, how cute!” moment during the virtual Happy Hour with friends, but Tabby is simply a distraction from your argument in a videoconference hearing. The same goes for paintings, photographs, and decorative tchotchkes appearing on screen with you. So, secure the pets and create a “studio” that makes you the center of attention.
The camera will also show the viewers what you are doing when you are not speaking. “Keep your hands away from your face” is not just good advice to avoid transmission of COVID-19. It’s good advice when you are on screen as well. Your fingers are not going to go anywhere good. Also, refrain from rolling your eyes or making a face, even when adverse counsel makes an outlandish argument.
The microphone is also a device of which you should be very self-aware. Barking dogs, squeaky chairs, rustling papers, keypad clicking, distance learning children, etc., are all going to be heard by the viewers, to your detriment. Background noises can range from merely irritating to drown-out-your-voice loud. If you are able to, mute your microphone when you are not speaking. But always assume your microphone is on and you are being listened to from the second you log-in to the conference to the time you log-out and turn off your computer when the video-conference is concluded. And take steps to eliminate the chance of noise interruptions by video-conferencing from a room with a door you can close.
Speaking of doors, remember that video-conferences are confidential. Family members, next-door neighbors, swimming pool attendants, etc. should not be able to listen in. It is a lawyer’s ethical responsibility to prevent the discussion from being overheard. Choose your “studio” placement with that duty in mind.
Think of videoconferencing as a “cool medium”, requiring you to participate actively, even when you are not speaking. Stay engaged and attentive at all times. And wear a shirt!