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Zoom Lawyering 101: Avoiding the (Cat Face) Pitfalls

It was the meow heard round the world. By now, we have all heard about the unfortunate incident involving a Texas lawyer who showed up for court via Zoom looking like a cat. Unbeknownst to the attorney, the laptop he borrowed for his Zoom court appearance had a filter turned on that morphed him into a cat. He had no clue how to make it stop, forcing him to make his formal announcement on a case in the 394th looking like a kitty.

At least the judge presiding over the case had a sense of humor about the situation. He tried talking the attorney through the process of removing the filter that was making him look like a fluffy, cuddly kitty to no avail. When that was unsuccessful, the judge tweeted about the incident, advising lawyers how to make sure they put their best face forward in the Zoom courtroom.

Zoom and other video conferencing tools have boomed since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to conduct business differently. The technology is a great resource for helping with due process, but it is not without pitfalls. While some in-person court appearances have begun resuming, others still are conducted via video conferencing as the need arises. Knowing how to conduct yourself online – and where the “filter off” button is – can save you from making an embarrassing gaffe during your next virtual court appearance. Here are some guidelines that can help.

Mute that microphone

Unmuting is the new “reply all” of video conferencing. It is one of the quickest ways to embarrass yourself if you are unaware you have a hot mic. Most video conferencing tools allow participants to turn off their microphones. Some even make it the default, forcing you to manually turn it on when you are ready to speak to others on the call. Going one step further and turning off the video also is an option. If you are presenting in virtual court and the judge requires the video to be on, then you can turn it on when it is your turn to speak. If you are unsure how to adjust these settings, here are some quick tips on how to do it.

Zoom makes it easy to control your camera and microphone. Once you are logged in to your account, go to Settings > Audio > Mute Microphone and Settings > Video > Turn Off Camera when joining the meeting. Once you are in the meeting, you will see a microphone and video icon at the bottom of your screen that allows you to easily turn them on or off as needed during the live video conference.

Zoom meeting, cat zoom filter
Judge Roy Ferguson had a little fun with the “cat-faced lawyer” on Twitter following the filter gaffe.

Select a virtual background

With more people conducting business from their homes these days, there is always a question about what is showing up in your background while on camera. If you wish to protect your privacy – or just hide your messy workspace – Zoom has a great feature called Virtual Background. Zoom provides a few pre-loaded options to use. You also can upload your photos. Using a free photo service like Pixabay or Pexels can help you locate appropriate background photos for uploading. We recommend sticking with photos that are not “too busy” to cut down on pixilation issues. You want the background to look natural without going overboard.

To access the virtual background feature, go to Settings > Virtual Background and then choose a pre-set background or upload your own. Then you click on the background you prefer and – voila! – your personal space is instantly transformed into however you want it to look to others on the call.

Using filters the right way

It is important to note that the unfortunate cat lawyer look was not due to a filter within Zoom. It was a separate filter installed on the laptop the attorney had borrowed. That is why when the judge was trying to walk the attorney through the process of turning off filters within Zoom, it was not resolving the issue.

Zoom offers filters if you wish to use them. They can come in handy if you are not confident with your appearance on camera for any reason. If you would like to give Zoom’s filter feature a go, here is how to access it. When you are in a live meeting, you will see an up arrow next to the “Start Video” option on your screen. Click the up arrow, and then select Video Settings. Under My Video, you will see a box that says, “Touch Up My Appearance.” Check that box and Zoom will automatically adjust the way you appear on the screen.

Zoom Screen Share
Zoom allows you to share your screen with other participants.

Sharing your screen

This is a helpful feature that allows Zoom participants to show others on the call what is displaying on their computer screens. In a virtual court scenario, it could be used to present documentary evidence. It makes it much easier for all participants if they can view the documentation as displayed on your screen.

Sharing your screen is easy in Zoom. At the bottom of your display, you will see a green button with an up arrow that says, “Share Screen.” Once you click on the button, you will be given the choice to share your entire monitor or just one open window or program. Select whichever option is most appropriate. If you will be going back and forth between different documents, it is recommended to share your monitor for ease of use for all participants.

Once you are finished sharing your screen, be sure to click the same button again at the bottom of your screen. This time, it will say, “Stop Sharing.” Be advised that if you fail to stop sharing, your screen will continue to be visible to all participants, which opens its risks of embarrassment in front of your legal peers.

Recording the session

Zoom allows participants to record the session for use later. You can record it and download it directly to your computer or the cloud. There are some limitations to this feature. Recording only works on a desktop or laptop, not mobile devices like cell phones. Recording to the cloud is only available to premium Zoom customers.

Another limitation with this feature is the meeting host can restrict the ability of other participants to record without first asking for permission. If you try to record the meeting and the host has restricted it, you will see a pop-up notice saying you must “click here” to request permission from the meeting host to record. Keep in mind the host can deny your request to record.

A final word on legal Zooming

These are just a few tips those in the legal profession will find helpful during Zoom hearings and proceedings. It is never a bad idea to sign up for a Zoom 101 webinar or another online course to learn more ins and outs of the video conferencing platform. Even as the legal profession returns to some semblance of normalcy, virtual hearings and other proceedings are not going to simply stop. There will be times when they are appropriate, so it is best to sharpen your virtual court skills so yours is not the next meow going viral on social media.

April 9, 2021