Before COVID-19, there were a few virtual law firms. Now all law firms are virtual.
Virtual practices had not been attractive. Lawyers recognized it is difficult to be as effective on a computer or TV screen as they are face-to-face with important constituencies – clients, judges, juries, bankers, regulators and many more.
Most would not think lawyers would have difficulty performing on camera, remembering TV hits like Perry Mason, LA Law or Suits, depending on your generation. But that focus was on courtroom lawyers, who are a small percentage of attorneys.
Most lawyers focus on problem solving, commercial and financial ventures, deals, research, analysis, criminal cases, municipalities, and many other disciplines, but not virtual communications.
Indeed, this global pandemic has forced the entire legal profession to function without offices, in person client meetings, lunches, dinners, as well as court access which has been forced to deliver justice with open video lines, but closed doors.
Yet, months into the pandemic, many lawyers still have not mastered skills necessary to please the camera.
In Darwinian terms, it will be the survival of the fittest, or perhaps, the most flexible.
All lawyers, regardless of discipline, must seize the digital world and own it, from video conferencing to social media. This transformation requires new skills, which for many, have not been a priority.
Additionally, law schools must rethink curriculums. Currently, they train students in classrooms and mock court rooms. They now need to sit students in front of cameras in television studios.
To be effective in this virtual world, lawyers must master six strategic areas.
First: Walls Have Ears
Video conferencing may not be as confidential or secure as one might imagine, particularly in ways you may not have considered. Digital assassins can hack into video conferences and networks in many ways.
Unless you can be sure you have a secure and confidential connection, do not state anything that you would not want to see in a Tweet, quoted in media or repeated in court. It is the lawyer’s professional obligation to maintain confidentiality. Remind your clients of that as well.
Key Idea: Video conference calls can be recorded with a handheld audio device by someone legitimately on the call. And, with so many disgruntled employees due to current circumstances or layoffs, or friends of disgruntled employees, audio clips can be passed on and repurposed. These recordings could be used immediately, or act as sleepers and surface months later. We have seen this issue break the surface with two corporations.
Lawyers and law firms are leading targets for cyber criminals since they are in the middle of many lucrative and sensitive transactions, and often, like most, unsophisticated in the ways of these cons and hackers.
Also, you do not always know who is sitting in the room with participants. It is not as if you are closing the conference room door and see who is present. So, you might ask everyone to identify themselves on the call – if they are alone – or can be overheard by anyone? Also, if you are questioning a witness, you need to ask if the witness has notes in front of them.
In my book: Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand, or Business Against Online Attacks, we reveal how the Internet is used to destroy brands, reputations, even lives. It exposes strategies digital assassins, disgruntled employees or trolls deploy, and defines ways to turn the tables on their deception.
Second: Dress for Success
Even though I did not have to, the other day I dressed in a blue business suit with a colorful Vineyard Vines Tie for two back-to-back virtual meetings. I did this just to acclimate my mind and body to be more attentive on these important presentations. As I appeared virtually on each call, received many comments and smiles. Seemed to make everyone happy … and me too.
While formal business dress is surely not always necessary, do look professional … especially for early meetings, and not like you just rolled out of bed. Bed head is even less attractive on a screen and will stick to your reputation.
In a Florida court a few months ago, one male lawyer appeared in a video conference shirtless, and in another a female attorney appeared still in bed, under the covers. The judge was not amused. In another virtual call, it did not go unnoticed, one person was putting on a beach cover-up to hide the fact they were poolside in a bathing suit. You cannot make this up.
So, ask yourself before the video, how do you look, hair, etc. What are you wearing? Is it appropriate for this specific meeting? What is your background of your screen? Library or office are good. Kitchen sink, not so good.
Key Idea: If you are not visually prepared for a call, turn off the camera or simply telephone in. Although it will not be as effective, it will probably protect your reputation.
Third: Be Respectful and Succinct
People are viewing you on a screen. They will relate their learned environment to TV characters as good guys or villains. Make sure you are identified correctly.
People choose to receive information in short clips. People shut down listening to long talks and glaze over reading paragraphs that go on for pages.
Reflecting that, Twitter has been very successful and important; we now live in a Twitter 280-character world.
Key Ideas: So, what are the best strategies lawyers should employ to be creditable online?
- Cut to the chase and assess what level of detail is “really” needed.
- Understand when to stop talking. By babbling on, chances increase to drive off-topic, or worse.
- Speak in clear, plain English, as if you are addressing a group of college freshman, not PhD candidates.
- Don’t use acronyms, but if absolutely unavoidable, define them, explain what they mean and why they are important.
- Keep questions and statements simple, respectful and to the point.
- Don’t be afraid to stop and ask if all understand the points you are addressing? This will not only confirm your messages and information are received correctly, but will position you to be gracious, concerned and involved.
Fourth: Rehearse, rehearse…. and rehearse again before the call
Last week during a rehearsal, a chief counsel said to me: “Rich, all this makes sense, it’s very helpful, but I just do not have the time to rehearse”. My answer was direct and respectful: “Do you want to be embarrassed in front of your board or peers and seen disinterested, distracted or ill prepared?”
We conducted several rehearsals for this important call. After the video call, the attorney’s CEO and CFO each called him to say, “his presentation was terrific, on point and he was a star.” Rehearse and rehearse again.
Fifth: Smile, You’re on Candid Camera
On audio calls you can look anywhere. No one can see you. But, how do you relate on video? Many are not comfortable turning a camera on themselves; to some it is an alien environment.
On a video call, not unlike a TV interview, nonverbal communications are paramount. And your video call needs to be produced like a TV show. The Torrenzano Group has trained hundreds of executives and attorneys for media interviews, both print and broadcast, speeches, testimony and virtual calls. Training for video calls are similar skill sets.
On a video call, look continually into the camera. It lets people on the call understand you are interested in what they are saying. When you are speaking, continue to look directly into the camera. If you look away incessantly those on the call will think you are disinterested or multitasking, thus losing credibility.
That does not mean you cannot look down to read or make notes. However, do it sparingly. Assign one person on the call to take notes and write a meeting summary.
Sit looking into the camera with head and shoulders centered, sitting up straight, not slouching forward. Speak conversationally, clearly and directly into the microphone. Be relaxed, you know your subject. Try not to speak over others talking … not always easy to do.
Sixth: Right now, video is the best alternative
As courts begin to open, if you have a choice, video may be a better alternative if there is an option of being present in the court room – or on video.
Perhaps for many months, jurisdictions will require all present – judge, jury, reporters, guards, attorneys, defendants and plaintiffs – to wear masks.
Do masks compromise creditability? How do you think a jury, or a judge for that matter, will respond to you or your client wearing a mask, concealing expressions and obscuring impact or truth?
It’s a Wrap
Virtual lawyering offers many advantages. There can be reduced costs, including travel and waiting time for lawyers or clients. Meetings can occur quickly, including off hours. Talent can be engaged from remote corners of the world. And, overhead costs can be dramatically reduced.
Now is the time to learn and master these skills to deliver powerful messages via expanding virtual mediums.