As I write, firm attorney Jennifer McKown is attending a court hearing by Zoom. Rather than appear at the courthouse, she is sitting in front of her laptop in the conference room. During the coronavirus pandemic, Zoom hearings have become a necessity. Teleconferencing has become necessary for many businesses. Think also of our schools. In our home (like so many other families), we’ve grappled with the reality of remote learning during the pandemic. Like other businesses and schools, the legal profession must also grapple with questions of what activities can be handled remotely versus in-person.
Since March, I’ve attended numerous hearings by teleconference (through Zoom). I’ve also attended some in-person hearings in full mask. Just a couple weeks ago, I argued a lengthy post-trial motion in-person in a Marshall County workers’ compensation case. Maybe that hearing could have been handled remotely but it would have been much more difficult. We won a work comp trial right before the coronavirus shutdown and the defense lawyer filed post-trial motions. The arguments involved discussions of numerous cases and pieces of evidence. Everyone present in the same room made it much easier. Maybe I’ll write more about in-person pandemic hearings later. But, right now, I’ll talk about tele-hearings.
We all hope for a quick return to life without the coronavirus. We all face the current uncertainties together. What happens after the pandemic? What parts of life return to pre-corona normal? What parts of life permanently change? Can we learn from this shared experience? Can we benefit by lessons learned during this time?
People in all businesses and professions are discovering they can perform many work activities remotely. The legal field is no different. Some activities can easily be handled remotely while others are better handled in-person.
At our office, we focus on our clients and preparing cases. We believe it is very important to spend lots of time talking with our clients. I’m always shocked when someone tells me they were never able to speak with their prior lawyer at another firm. How else can you understand your client’s needs and goals? How else can you learn, prepare and present your client’s story? Nothing can take the place of in-person discussions with clients. If you want to be a good lawyer, you need to meet and talk with your clients.
For many court proceedings, there is also no good substitute or alternative to in-person appearances. But, teleconference technology may be useful in the long-term for many activities. Here are five ways continued teleconference usage (in a post shutdown world) could shape our personal injury practice in ways that help our clients:
Yes, I think many types of court appearances require in-person attendance. But, court involves more than jury trials. When preparing a personal injury case, a lawyer may have numerous court appearances. Status conferences with the court. Scheduling hearings. Motion hearings. If you prepare and push your cases forward (and we do), you will have hearings.
Status hearings and simple motions could easily be handled through teleconference. We represent seriously injured people across Alabama. I regularly attend court several hours from my Huntsville office. Those regular appearances on behalf of clients are so valuable — no substitute exists for them. But, some hearings involve simple status reports from the lawyers. The judge wants to hear from the lawyers that they are working and wants to schedule matters like trials. These status hearings may last just a few minutes. Often, both sides will have lawyers travel significant distances for these five minute status hearings. The lawyers could provide a status and agree on scheduling remotely. In many Federal Courts, judges have long-held telephone conferences for these simple hearings instead of requiring an appearance.
Again, I’m definitely not advocating for Zoom hearings on all matters. When you have serious legal arguments or substantial pieces of evidence, I think you need to be present in the courtroom. If you are looking for a personal injury lawyer, the best advice I can give is (1) find a lawyer who devotes all his or her time to personal injury trial work; and, (2) find a lawyer who regularly goes to court.
Why require travel and an appearance just to provide a status report? Lawyers could better serve their clients by spending less time on the road for non-evidentiary hearings.
I realize my opinion may not be popular with a few lawyers who want to hourly bill for the travel time. But, those lawyers should be more concerned with their clients’ interests.
As I mentioned, we spend a lot of time talking with our clients. We believe this time is so valuable to preparing their case and presenting their story. In-person meetings are essential to us. When you hire our firm, you meet with an attorney. You should never hire a law firm unless you meet with an actual attorney!
During the preparation of a case, we are going to meet in-person many times with our client. We are going to communicate regularly in order to prepare the case.
However, not every meeting must be in-person. Some meetings could be handled more efficiently by teleconference. This is especially true for short meetings where the client may have to travel. And, we certainly understand using remote meeting technology during times of health issues like the current crisis. When possible, we should use technology for the benefit of our clients.
Work Comp Approval Hearings
In Alabama, workers’ compensation settlements must be approved by a Circuit Judge. That typically means traveling to the courthouse where the case is filed. Both lawyers and the injured worker will appear before the judge. Yet, the hearing is simple. The judge will want to know about the case. The judge will want to know the injured worker understands the settlement and its impact. The hearings don’t last long.
I value this time in court. But, in some cases, the injured worker must travel a long distance for the hearing. Think of a truck driver injured on the job. That truck driver may be based in another state and injured while traveling down the Interstate through Alabama. Should we really require him to appear in court for a settled case when a teleconference might serve the same purpose? If you live in another area of Alabama (or out-of-state), could a teleconference serve the same purpose as traveling an extended distance to the courthouse?
Teleconference hearings can make workers’ compensation settlements much easier and efficient. While I still believe a work comp trial should be in-person, you could even have some hearings remotely. I know an excellent work comp attorney in Birmingham who has had a couple compensability hearings by Zoom during the pandemic in order to get medical treatment for his injured clients.
If you have ever suffered a serious illness or injury, then you know how frustrating it can be to navigate the medical system. The difficulty in scheduling doctor visits. The need for referrals. The long wait for appointments. The frustration with insurance and payments. Many medical visits need to be in-person. Doctors need those in-person visits to physically examine you.
Yet, not all appointments need to be in-person. Is the appointment just a consult to update the doctor on your progress? Is the appointment just a visit to update your prescriptions? Is the appointment just a meeting to discuss test results or a referral? Many of these could be handled remotely. Even some initial consultations where you tell the doctor your symptoms could be handled remotely.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a great interview by several medical professionals on the issue of telemedicine. Many types of appointments can be handled more efficiently (and at less cost to everyone) by teleconference.
For many years, webinars have been a part of the continuing legal education process. But, most of these webinars were simply pre-recorded presentations you watched on your computer. Zoom (or other teleconference technology) provides a more interactive experience.
At our office, we have used this court shutdown time to listen and collaborate with some of the best lawyers across the country. What do I mean? Many of the best personal injury trial lawyers in the country now have extra time to discuss their knowledge. What better time to discuss trials? What better time for one lawyer to listen and talk with another lawyer on the other side of the country? During this shutdown, we’ve even participated in a fantastic teleconference series where lawyers observe and discuss parts of significant trials across the country. You learn so much by watching winning trials and analyzing them piece-by-piece.
With Zoom, you don’t always need to travel. Even when life returns to normal, we should continue learning with teleconferences.
While I hope life soon returns to normal, we should take the lessons of this difficult time to heart. Businesses and schools have adapted in ways that can be carried forward to our benefit. The legal field must continue to adapt as well.
At the Blackwell Law Firm, we represent people with serious personal injury cases across Alabama. We devote 100% of our time and effort to personal injury and trial work. We know the current coronavirus shutdowns are difficult for our friends and neighbors. During this difficult time, we continue to spend long hours preparing our cases and advancing our skills for our clients. If you have questions about a personal injury matter, let us know. Consultations are always free and confidential.