Judge, Jury and Verdict — On a Year of This ‘Zoom Stuff’

By Tonya Graser Smith

I know it, y’all know it – and we all feel it. Yes, it really has been a full year of what I call “this Zoom stuff.” Let’s talk about my verdict on Zoom and life as a family law attorney during a pandemic. I’m both tired of and grateful for Zoom and will cover the pros and the cons.

The Judge (me) and the Jury (people smarter than me)

While this article represents expressions from my work, viewpoint, observations, I regularly read about this stuff from people who are smarter than I am (like from Harvard and Stanford) and share and exchange with my colleagues (who are not specifically named, but sometimes believe themselves smarter).

Zoom pros

Forward progress and closure. Without virtual meetings, divorce and family court proceedings would have come to a complete standstill for who knows how long. People who need to move their lives forward would have been stuck without good recourse to do much. During the times we’ve had to be the most locked down, Zoom divorce mediation sessions and family court hearings have kept clients’ cases moving forward.

Now why is this important? First and foremost, closure after a divorce is paramount. Second: money, because the longer a divorce lasts, the more money it costs both sides. Third: time, which you have only so much of and can’t produce more of. For many of my clients, taking the first step to start the divorce process is the biggest step they take, but the steps that follow do not get easier. The sooner my clients can get closure, save money and recoup their time, the sooner they can begin to fully heal and live.

Cost-effectiveness. Virtual hearings can be more cost-effective for my clients. If the purpose of the court visit is more administrative in nature and not one of substance and presentation, then it might not be worth my travel time to and from the courthouse. I’m all for Zoom in these routine instances – now and as future practice.

Scheduling. Hearings and mediations by Zoom can be easier on clients’ schedules and require less time away from work, family and home responsibilities.

Wardrobe. Heels and professional attire are not required from the waist down. Meanwhile, my oversized earrings and necklaces are making appearances more often.

Zoom cons

Wardrobe. Heels and professional attire are not required from the waist down. Let’s just say it’s easy to get a little too comfortable incorporating athleisure and slippers into your work wear. There really is something to getting dressed up and going out into the world that says, “This is something important, and I am showing up for it. I am here. I am ready.”

Distractions. Hearings and mediations by Zoom might be easier for clients’ schedules, but they can be less effective if the client isn’t as focused as he or she would be in a courtroom or an attorney’s office. I think it’s safe to say that external distractions – the dog barking when the mail is delivered – and a tendency to multi-task on calls can make it hard to be fully present 100% of the time. Internal distractions – like fixing your hair on screen – also can pull attention away from the important matters. I don’t want clients to miss anything that impacts their case.

No small talk. There’s no place for small talk in group Zoom meetings. Yes, you can ask for break-out rooms, but that is a process and takes tons more time. When sitting in person, passing a quick note to your client or leaning over to opposing counsel without sharing your comments with entire group are things that help get deals done. The Jury (specifically Bob Bordone of the Harvard Negotiations Project) reports small talk, when sincere, creates trust and stronger relationships, leading to deals getting done.

No tissues or hugs. Divorce is hard and emotional. And it is a lot harder to go through it on screen. Sometimes giving a hug or handing someone a tissue goes a long way in the healing – and that doesn’t happen over the screen. When this pandemic is over, I look forward to being able to provide in-person tissues and support for my clients. It’s also better when soon-to-be exes can see each other – and hopefully their humanity – in person. It’s better closure, and if one spouse acts like a jerk or bully the whole time … well, that is affirming of the decision to move on, isn’t it?

Zoom fatigue. Virtual meetings are exhausting, so much more so than in-person meetings. I’ve read articles that explain how our brain works harder in them – like it’s trying to overcome momentary lags in the audio or technology glitches so that nothing is lost in translation. We have to be so much more “on” when we are constantly staring eye to eye with a screen, when in person we would never stand that close nor stare that long in conversations. Hour after hour. Exhausting. (For more on this, check out these articles from Stanford and The Washington Post.)

In person we also have the plethora of non-verbal cues that help our brains confirm if the conversation is going well or not. Humans are meant to live in community, interact and share in person. (I fear for the long-term effects on school children whose bodies are meant to move more throughout the day and whose brains are surely weary of learning like this. But that is another story…)

The verdict

The pandemic won’t last forever. But Zoom has changed how we work – for better and for worse. It’s up to us to take the good parts and do our best to mitigate the not-so-good parts. I’m finding new ways to combat Zoom fatigue – and sometimes that means advising everyone in a virtual conference to turn off their cameras to sit in the quiet so we can all gather the energy to resume or saying no to Zoom and having a good, old-fashioned phone call instead. I also plan to reincorporate more pieces from my work wardrobe and encourage my clients to do the same.

This work is important.

We are here. We are ready for it.