Even as the law-firm workplace preps for a post-pandemic world, the convenience and cost savings online conferencing brings to the table will ensure the solution is here to stay.
Law firms across the country — like everybody else in this pandemic world — have had to make the shift from hosting high-powered meetings in the office conference room to punching in the meeting ID for online conferencing calls.
Make no mistake, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts have connected the country while we were on lockdown or in isolation. However, these online conferencing capabilities take on an added complexity when it comes to dealing with legal proceedings.
Law firms have had to make the shift to “Zooming” so they can continue to serve clients and meet legal obligations. However, firms are enjoying the flexibility the online conferencing solution offers — whether it is used for depositions, mediations or practically any other proceedings. Online conferencing has saved thousands of attorneys and support-legal staff from layoffs from Covid-19, quite simply because the work continues.
The rest of the world has caught up, too. It used to be clients who needed to be in the office to sign documents or use the services of a notary public. However, now with online services such as DocuSign and a dizzying array of online notary publics, nearly everything can be securely taken care of as long there’s an internet signal. It’s a matter of loading documents indicating who needs to sign and where and instructing to send the signed document back. The documents are encrypted for security and legally binding.
Notary publics work similarly, except the notary public must confirm the identity, often using proprietary ID tools. The notary then connects with the client on a secure two-way call, notarizes the document and sends it back for downloading.
Law firms aren’t the only members of the legal world using online conferencing. The judicial-system side hosted the first oral argument in Florida, hosted by the Fourth District Court of Appeals in April 2020. The Illinois Supreme Court held oral arguments over Zoom. Firms have used online conferencing for staff training as well as interviewing applicants virtually. Hiring remained constant throughout the pandemic because the work continued as normal.
Even law schools are taking advantage of conferencing technology. The North Carolina Central University School of Law delivers education through virtual classrooms.
As grand as online conferencing seems for legal practices, there are some considerations:
- Most platforms are not hack-proof. It’s suggested each and every meeting be password protected and changed for each meeting. Always use private meeting settings and do not allow participants to join a meeting before the host joins.
- Zoom bombing is when an unauthorized intruder enters a Zoom meeting. While this could be embarrassing, it could lead to criminal mischief or to the theft of confidential information. It’s the host’s responsibility to monitor meeting participants.
- Meeting participants may neglect to think about background art, pictures, memorabilia, apparel or other personal items visible during an online conference call that could inadvertently reveal information regarding a person’s race, religion, orientation, age or membership in a protected class. Background items could also reveal health-related issues subject to HIPAA violations. The best practice is to have the background look like a conference room background. Shelves of law books or an inviting arrangement of indoor plants is a safe bet.
- Attorney-client privilege: Lack of security could compromise attorney-client privilege. For example, if a meeting is recorded and is posted on a non-secure internet site, communication is compromised. Attorneys should control who has access to online conference meetings and where a meeting recording is posted and should post a disclaimer before the meeting and even throughout several points during the meeting.
- Due Process: Many courts are conducting hearings using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts instead of in-person court appearances. If a participant cannot get the software to function correctly, that person may not be able to attend their hearing and it could potentially be grounds for denial of due process and a violation of a Fifth Amendment right.
- Terms of Service: Users must select the “I Agree” button to continue. This could limit legal recourse against online conferencing platforms due to their terms of service agreement. The “as is” agreement absolves many platforms of responsibility for the content, loss of content, loss due to access problems and lost deleted content. For example, users must agree to waive suing Zoom individually, forbidding participation in a class-action lawsuit.
Even as the law-firm workplace preps for a post-pandemic world, the convenience and cost savings online conferencing brings to the table will ensure the solution is here to stay. Knowing and guarding against the potential pitfalls will stave off unforeseen headaches and, at worst, potential litigation.