Processing Divorce in Court during COVID… On Zoom?
It’s not news that we are in extraordinary times, with divorce court cases being held over video chat platforms like Zoom. I’ve been wondering how this experience is for clients who, for the time being, don’t have to stand in front of a judge in a hushed courtroom.
How do they hear things differently?
How is the feeling different – better or worse?
And is the judge’s ruling in a divorce case as effective from afar?
From a lawyer’s perspective, preparing for an evidentiary hearing and having to do a trial by Zoom is also different. We call witnesses, and they respond from their own homes or offices.
Are they reading information they would not otherwise be able to refer to if in person?
Are they texting a friend or the Jameson Law firm for help?
Body Language Is Impossible to Read in Remote Cases
The judge may hear things differently, too, unable to read the body language or pick up on certain inferences made by those present in a courtroom.
Often in family court, judges will make comments from the bench to address the parties, to send a message. I wonder, is that message as powerful while the party is sitting in an easy chair in his living room, listening without really being present?
As an example, not long after we were all required to stay-safe-at-home, a party filed a motion to prevent the other parent from traveling out of the country with their children – when travel out of the country was really not possible due to pandemic limitations on travel. We still don’t know when it will be possible to travel beyond our borders.
The judge looked at both parties on the virtual hearing and said, “You have to choose your battles. This is not an emergency. Nobody is going anywhere right now, so come back to me if there really is an urgency.”
The co-parents were arguing about what was essentially an irrelevant point. The judge tried to emphasize this point sternly, but I have to say, I don’t think the point sticks as much with clients when we’re relegated to video hearings.
Isn’t It Good to Revere the Judge?
In the courtroom, when a judge makes a comment from the bench, and an order is entered into the court docket, it’s a serious thing. You can feel the gravity of the situation when you’re standing there, in the windowless courtroom, with the judge seated higher than everyone, and no one else utters a word.
You stand, out of respect for the judge, and wait for him or her to respond to your motion. And what the judge says, goes.
Let’s Get Serious
I’m convinced that while the order stands and is as effective and imperative during this time as any other time, the parties don’t feel the gravity of the situation in the same way.
There is one upside to this new normal, though. In divorce cases where abuse or violence is present, not having to show up in the same physical space as your abuser is a relief for clients seeking freedom and safety from domestic abuse.
In these situations, staying in your own home while the abuser remains in another space is a gift for the victim. However, I’m not sure the abuser receives the severity of the proceedings when the judge is on a screen.
The takeaway from all of this is that if you were planning to divorce, think about how the inability to appear in a physical courtroom will help or hinder your case.
There are non-court-based options for divorce, of course, like Collaborative Divorce or Mediation – which might be better alternatives.
If you’re looking for a divorce lawyer at this time, you might want to consider talking with a lawyer who is familiar with and practices both the court-based, litigation model and is specially trained as a mediator or Collaborative attorney – someone like me!
After all, is it worth litigating if you’re not appearing in front of a judge?
How a Jameson Law Manages a Virtual Divorce Case in Colorado
This blog first appeared on the website for the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. Read the original blog here.
In the era of COVID-19, everyone is using virtual meeting software to conduct business. However, my Collaborative Divorce colleagues and I were already doing it.
A Case Follows Its Clients
This case began in the typical in-person format in Michigan. The husband met with me several times over nine months as he contemplated filing for divorce. Shortly after it became clear that ending the marriage was his next step, he and his wife decided to sell their home and move to another state, where two of their married children live.
It is not like any case can go virtual; attorneys are bound by the parameters of the State Bar and can only practice in states where they are licensed to do so.
Based on my state’s laws, if my client moved to Colorado and then filed for divorce, I could not represent him.
But he wanted to work with me in a Collaborative fashion on his virtual divorce. Accordingly, we filed in the state of Michigan before they moved, which relegated the case to the state where they had lived during their marriage.
Committed to the Collaborative Process
They agreed to proceed in a Collaborative fashion, and the wife hired Collaborative Divorce attorney, Tucson divorce attorney. We created a team that included divorce financial planner Jacqueline Roessler and divorce coach Judith Margerum. Everyone agreed that this case would be conducted through video conferencing.
I assumed the professionals would be together in one place, and the parties in another place, but this did not happen. For scheduling convenience, each professional joined from her own office, and our clients were in their home in different rooms.
As the case progressed, I thought it would be better for the team to gather in person, especially for a pre-meeting and a debrief after the client meeting. As it turned out, due to the pandemic, we connected via our own shelter-in-place locations.
For the most part, the virtual divorce case proceeded beautifully with Zoom as our means for communication and meeting. There were drawbacks of course. For example, it was harder to take side meetings with a client or team member on Zoom. However, it was possible using the Breakout Rooms feature.
On the positive side, the Collaborative tone remained in this virtual format.
Collaborative Focuses on the Family
As usual with Collaborative Divorce, we were able to focus the process to suit the family. This family was in transition, so we created virtual meetings to accommodate their desire to move, rather than having to wait for their divorce to be final in Michigan.
Another plus is that you can see people’s reactions and responses, which is crucial for the mental health professional on our team. While we cannot read the energy as we would in-person, we can still see, really close up, each face.
And, scheduling meetings is a breeze – no need to plan around drive time or calendar conflicts.
Today’s technologies make it easy to expand our Collaborative world while still getting the same great work done.
Here are some tips for making video conferencing work for divorce law cases.
Pay attention; make sure you are looking at the screen. People often get distracted during a video conference and might look to another screen, thus missing reactions and responses.
Because everybody is on a computer, the person taking notes can type it on their own device. I could look at the meeting and type while it was going on.
It is easy to record the meeting for future review. People sometimes forget what they said or agreed to, or perhaps different parties have different interpretations of the proceedings. Having the ability to record the meeting eliminates confusion. Professionals should be aware of the most current privacy standards that apply to them in regards to use of this technology, specifically around recording. In addition, mental health professionals may need to determine whether their technology platform is HIPPA compliant prior to hosting or recording meetings.
Choose a platform that you’re comfortable with. We use Zoom, but there is also GoToMeeting, AnytimeMeetings, and others. Choose one that offers the option of breakout rooms.
Be prepared. Learn how to share your screen, know the software, know the technology before the meeting begins.
Plan your pre-meeting and your after-meeting, especially if professionals are not in the same room. Planning is still very important.
During this time of pandemic shutdowns, legal process and procedure were forced to change.
Suddenly, we had no choice but to practice differently, and the court system had to accept drastic changes to legal processes. The way we always knew to practice law simply does not work in a pandemic.
Is Change Good?
I’ve pondered whether this change prompted all of us in the legal field to become more creative. Or did it just bring us into the 21st century? Are we finally embracing a new face of law that was inevitable, but which we resisted until we had no choice?
This happened in a lot of industries and fields. Companies that did not embrace work-from-home did so quickly and completely to protect the health of employees and clients.
Surprisingly, they found productivity did not wane! In many cases, productivity improved because people were trusted to get work done and do it well.
Image by Ohioduidefense from Pixabay
How Divorce Law Happens
The legal field is an interesting mix of independent and communal work. A lot of my work happens in my office, on my computer, pulling research and precedent and templates to create motions, judgments, and other written pieces of legal process.
There is also work I cannot do alone. For litigation cases, I must appear in court, beside my client.
Their spouse must appear as well, with his or her attorney. We appear in a court room, before a judge, with the courtroom clerk, Friend of the Court representatives and witnesses, too.
That’s a lot of people in a small space. In normal times, there are also other people awaiting their turn before the judge
Remember the days when we had time before and after a meeting to prepare and process? There was no such thing as “Zoom fatigue” back then, and oh it seems a distant memory!
With all the virtual meetings of the last few months, I’m starting to forget the rhythm of the pre-pandemic work day. While I prefer in-person meetings, I am becoming more comfortable conducting business remotely.
Building a New Normal
There is really no choice! We spend our days now on Zoom or FaceTime because it’s the only way to be with others, safely.
Recently, I had a conversation with some colleagues about how we are so much more tired at the end of a day now. And yet, we haven’t gone anywhere!
So why are we so tired?
Understanding Where Energy Comes From
I posed this question to a colleague who specializes in Co-Parenting counseling, Jordana Wolfson. A social worker, Jordana explained that it takes a lot of energy to participate in virtual meetings because we cannot pull energy from others in the room.
People-to-people interactions have an energy that we miss when we sit alone at the dining room table. That’s why co-working spaces like WeWork became so popular.
Millennials and Gen Z professionals were already comfortable working remotely. They were good at staying connected with friends across the country via video chat. Professionals of a certain age (like me!) did not grow up with this.
Drained by Zoom fatigue, we are realizing just how much energy we draw from being in the same space as others.
Jordana Wolfson, social worker Co-Parenting Solutions LLC
Will This Be Our New Normal?
This may be a new face of work going forward, even after the pandemic ends. But we must find ways to fuel daily energy without depending on others in the room.
Maybe the new normal will be more about balance – finding a balance between working from home and being at the office, spending time with family and friends versus being a workaholic, eating out vs. eating at home.
Perhaps we’ll be more selective with how we choose to spend our time, drawing energy less from the work day and more from life itself.