Due to COVID, law schools have transitioned to online learning. To provide legal writing students with the same experiential simulation as in a “real” courtroom, law schools will also hold Oral Arguments via Zoom or other videoconferencing platforms. Virtual oral arguments allow for real-time, audio & video interaction and replicate what courts are also doing during COVID to provide litigants to the judicial process. This information is intended to guide volunteer judges and law students in preparing for upcoming Virtual Oral Arguments.
The following Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Virtual Oral Argument recording provides a helpful visual reference for what this new format is like. The video features a panel of three appellate judges and two litigants. While there is no visible countdown clock, the Presiding Judge can be heard reminding the litigants of remaining time.
Here are some tips I’ve assembled from a variety of sources: past remote court appearances, advice published by courts, litigants, and from observing many virtual oral arguments.
Set-up for Success Using Zoom:
- Test Connection: Test your connection and setup with Zoom with a test meeting
- If you have bandwidth issues, consider joining Zoom with laptop video, but using your phone for audio connection
- Camera Placement: Position the camera at your eye level or slightly above eye level. If using a laptop webcam, use a stack of books or a laptop stand to raise the laptop webcam to eye level – this also helps to clear some desk space. If using an external webcam, use a webcam tripod to adjust the camera position
- Here’s a helpful video about camera placement from a TV producer to look your best on camera.
- Lighting: Check the lighting. Ideally, position yourself so the light is directed at your face. Position a lamp or sit facing a window, where light is directed on your face.
- Light from behind might blind the camera, making you appear dark. Light above you in the center of a room might cast shadows.
- Audio: Know where your microphone is.
- Test audio settings to ensure your microphone is picking up your voice and you can be heard. See tip above for using phone for audio.
- Background: Be mindful of what is behind you, choose a solid neutral wall if possible.
- Remove clutter or other background material that might be distracting to viewers.
- Limit Noises & Distractions: Turn off potential noise distractions.
- Silent your phone ringer, turn off televisions and music. As much as possible, limit others from interrupting you (family members, roommates, pets).
- Materials/Documents: Plan carefully for the documents you will use. It may be difficult to have several electronic documents open on your laptop.
- Consider using a small binder or hard copy outline. There’s even less room for distraction and fumbling when you need to pay even closer attention to what everyone is saying. Also, noise from shuffling papers may be transmitted to the judges, making it difficult for them to hear or concentrate on your argument.
- Multiple Rooms/Waiting Room: Consider using multiple rooms, breakout rooms, or waiting rooms to manage the argument
- For example, Zoom hosts can use the Waiting Room feature to admit participants when the host is ready. Judges could be admitted first to allow for instructions, then student advocates, etc.
- Use Gallery View:
- Use Gallery View (multiple video thumbnails shown at once) instead of Speaker View (single video thumbnail) to ensure you can see all litigants and judges’ cameras
- Mute Audio & Video When Not Presenting:
- Mute your audio when not presenting your oral argument. Some courts (and student oral arguments) will also ask you to mute your video when not presenting to narrow the video field
- Eye Contact: When speaking, look directly at the webcam, not at the screen or down at your notes. If you must refer to your notes or outline, look up frequently to visually check in.
- Attire: Dress professionally in a solid color. Avoid wearing clothing/jewelry that will distract your viewer.
- Speak Slowly & Pause: Speak more slowly than normally to ensure you are clearly understood. Participants should try to speak one at a time and pause prior to speaking in case there is any audio/video lag or sound issues. Pauses also allow judges to ask questions.
- Mute When Not Speaking: Participants should mute themselves when not speaking in order to avoid any potential background noise. Alternatively, a clerk/bailiff can mute participants when not presenting.
- Online Countdown Timer: user configurable and features colored warning lights
- Argument Timer App: customizable timer created by a law professor for law students and appellate advocates, also features colored warning lights, available on iTunes
I’ve also included some helpful references and articles about courts adapting quickly to using Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms to hold oral arguments as well as bench trials.