The following article was written by Christina Martell, Esq.
This month I finalized one of the first adoptions in our county via Zoom. It only happened through an introduction, a cell phone conversation, and a Zoom link sent to several emails. Just days later friends and family members of my client watched virtually as the adoption was granted. A few months ago this would have been unimaginable. How did we get here?
Nostalgia for normal
It’s a new day. I wake up to two rambunctious toddlers jumping on me in my bed. What time is it? What day is it?
It’s 4:30 AM on a Friday.
We’re almost through the week, buddies. Can’t mommy sleep a little longer? I guess not. It’s time for the juggle, and from these early morning hours to the end-of-day bedtime routine we’re still practicing; the juggle is real.
As a solo attorney, my workdays were, prior to quarantine, full of meeting with clients, appearances in court, settlement conferences with judges, drafting pleading after pleading, answering phone calls and emails, and even the increasingly frequent pop-in visits by clients at my office, something for which I never advertised but perhaps failed to set adequate boundaries.
Nevertheless, these were predictable times, when my children stayed in the most capable and loving hands possible, those of my in-laws. My husband commuted to work from Aurora to Chicago by train, a 90-minute commute each way. After rushing through morning drop off, I would settle in at my office. I may have taken for granted the luxury of a quiet office all to myself, the ease of having my paralegal one desk over to help get things filed and listen to my anxieties about my cases, the free coffee in my shared office building; and it was nice having the uninterrupted time to get things done and do things the way they’d always been done.
I can add up hours of my day that I spent behind the wheel of my Honda Odyssey or sitting in a court room waiting to be heard, and I’m a cautious driver and a little too timid to push for my case to be called next, so both activities always took longer than necessary. These inefficiencies probably didn’t matter as much to attorneys with more experience than me, or more clients to bill; but for me, the time was rarely something for which I’d be compensated. It was gone, wasted, drained like the gas tank.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has required all of us to make big changes to our everyday lives, the judges, clerks, attorneys, paralegals, and support staff who make up the legal profession would often find themselves last to adapt to new technology, for fear of going into the unknown before assessing all of the risks involved. We are naturally risk averse, because we spend so much time advising people about the risks of their potential decisions. But if I’ve learned anything from watching Frozen 2 as many times as I have, venturing “into the unknoooown” is transformational!
Technology and the new normal
When it comes to embracing this new world of necessary technology, I am surprisingly pleased to say that the courts and attorneys have actually been doing alright. For the first couple weeks of quarantine, many of us wondered when we’d go to court again, or how we’d get our clients’ matters resolved, especially if we couldn’t meet face-to-face. But soon a tool I hadn’t been utilizing became ubiquitous, the Zoom conference.
As a proud millennial, I can tell you I would never shy away from useful technology, especially technology that could directly help me complete tasks and expedite business. But as a shy and polite young(er) Midwestern attorney, I previously wouldn’t dare suggest a court allow me to appear through a webcam, for fear that the judge would laugh in my face and admonish me for assuming they’d allow someone so low on the totem pole to open up that kind of can of worms.
Once a judge told a room full of attorneys that he wouldn’t recommend scheduling more than one matter on the same day, unless both matters were in the same courtroom. Attorneys who were used to appearing for multiple cases in multiple courtrooms in the building were visibly put off by this unwelcome advice. Another time, I was told by a downstate judge that I’d need to appear, so only after I made the three-hour trek with my client in the passenger seat was I told my motion would not be heard because opposing counsel had filed a motion to withdraw.
The virtual office
But onward and upward we go, and here we are, with the capabilities of working from our dining room tables, accomplishing important tasks for our clients, such as divorce prove-ups, pretrial conferences, real estate closings, or even the entry of adoption judgments. Thanks to technology like Zoom, and my case management system, Smokeball, my law firm is essentially virtual, and can be carried with me from one room of the house to another on my laptop or phone.
I can also use Zoom to enhance my legal skills through CLEs, some provided for free from law firms and bar associations. I use Zoom for a weekly networking meeting with fellow family law attorneys from the Chicago Justice Entrepreneurs Project and also to keep in touch with my best girl friends from law school.
Of course, working from home has its challenges. With our boys at home with us, my husband and I have had to tag-team work, in two-hour time blocks each day. One of us works upstairs while the other tries to work downstairs where Peppa Pig is snorting and teaching the kids how to build a fort made of couch cushions and Cookie Monster throws food around like it’s an example of good behavior.
But we hold down the fort and avoid too many food fights. We make it happen. We treat our Zoom conferences like the important meetings they are, and we prioritize our to-do lists of work and household chores around them.
It’s not perfect, but luckily, in light of the pandemic, judges and opposing counsel have been patient and kind. Perfection is not expected. The expectations are actually quite low. Can you sign in and turn your microphone on? You’re fine. I know some articles have been written admonishing attorneys for their clothing choices or what’s going on in the background of their office, but I have yet to experience any criticism. I assume as we all get more comfortable on this platform, our expectations for professionalism will be raised significantly. That being said, we are all human, and in these crazy times, we are all doing our best.
I’ve been late to a conference a time or two, I’ve shown up with wet hair, and yes, I’ve been guilty of the blazer on top, pajamas on bottom trick at one of my hearings. At that same hearing, I used FaceTime to bring a witness into my webcam’s view for the sake of expediency while my son whaled in the other room with his papi, who was also on a Zoom conference at the time. I couldn’t stand up to help because, you know, the pajama bottoms. It wasn’t my finest moment, and I apologized for the low-tech solution and the background noise, but I got the job done, and the judge was understanding and empathetic.
The virtual court
The availability of remote hearings is great news for clients, as their cases can move forward and their arguments can be heard. The delays and rescheduling can be frustrating for some clients, but it beats the alternative of waiting for the next six to eight weeks for a court date while their stressful family issues persist but the arguably most important legal proceedings of their lives remain stagnant.
The courts recognize this potential traffic jam on the horizon and they seem to be directing more and more traffic to Zoom, issuing new general orders regarding the new processes and allowing remote hearings in more and more instances.
I’m proud of myself for sticking through some of the more difficult weeks when so much was unknown. When I began working from home, I quickly began considering whether it was time to throw in the towel and dissolve my practice. Things were getting too stressful. It’s hard to type when a toddler with an affinity for the ABCs climbs into your lap and eyes your keyboard. But when my paralegal and I began video conferencing with each other, making calls and sending emails to courts, inquiring as to when we could get things moving, if at all, in particular cases, I was surprised to find how many courts were not only responsive but equipped for video conferences and had their own private Zoom accounts for these purposes.
I was also surprised to experience how seamless many of the judges and clerks had made the process. For example, I happened to finalize one of the first adoptions in our county via Zoom conference, which was really special to see. It would not have happened if I hadn’t reached out to the adoption judge, who was new to that particular calendar. To facilitate this, a good friend and colleague got me in touch with the adoption judge directly, who called my cell phone, and shortly thereafter, we had the date on our calendars and the link to the Zoom conference in our emails. My clients’ friends and family from all over the country could dial in and watch the judge announce that the adoption had been granted.
Technology as equalizer
If you’re an attorney who hasn’t had a Zoom hearing yet, or who has intentionally scheduled matters for well into the summer months, hoping things may go “back to normal” soon, I’d challenge you to reach out to the clerks of court in your matters and get something on the calendar for a remote hearing as soon as reasonably possible.
By embracing technology, we make ourselves available to a wider selection of, and begin to level the playing field for, average-income legal consumers. If a named defendant can show up to his civil lawsuit by Zoom before he retains a lawyer, allowing him more time and consideration before doing so; or a single parent can hire counsel without missing work, and send that attorney to court on her behalf; or a previously unrepresented litigant can afford an attorney because the bill for court time doesn’t include waiting in traffic, paying for parking, walking to the building or sitting at a table waiting to be heard; or those who live in more rural locations statewide can find attorneys better suited for their specific legal needs by casting a wider geographic net, then I want to embrace it wholeheartedly.
None of us could have predicted this, but all of us should be welcoming of the potential and possibilities that we’re being presented with now.
Christina Martell is the practicing owner of the Law Office of Christina Martell, LLC, a family law-focused law firm operating outside of Chicago and serving DuPage, Kane, and Cook counties.