We are discussing the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the legal profession, the courts, practicing law, and the life of a lawyer. Our first installment was broadly and generally on working remotely. It’s likely to continue to spread, just as it was pre-pandemic. Let’s look at some others.
Zoom. Microsoft Teams. Google Meet. Virtual meetings. Virtual hearings. Virtual mediations. Virtual depositions. Being somewhere without actually being there has become virtually commonplace. Very George Jetson if you think about it. And while technology has made it possible, is it really a good substitution for being there? How likely is it to stay?
Nothing can take the place of a face-to-face in-person meeting. We are sophisticated creatures. We have evolved to the point that our brains process a great deal of data of which we are not even conscious. Call it our gut, gut instincts, or a woman’s intuition, but it’s our brains. We process everything around us. This is especially true when we communicate. We communicate with more than our words, which is why texts often fall short of our communication goals and intentions for them, resulting in misunderstandings. The spoken word is more effective than the written word because we can communicate more – feelings, emotions, intentions, etc. We can say the same sentence two different ways and communicate polar opposite notions. But we also communicate with our facial expressions. Like vocal tone and intonations, our facial expressions can change the meaning of our spoken word. But we also communicate with our body language.
While good video captures our spoken word and our facial expressions, it doesn’t adequately capture body language. This makes our communications more difficult and less clear, thus we are more guarded in what we say and think.
There is something about being physically present as humans that makes a difference. It makes us more human. It’s a lot more difficult for most to be mean and nasty to someone to their face than it is at their keyboard, though unfortunately, we seem to be getting “better” at it (let’s blame it on “reality” television and social media.
Years ago, I worked with a client on various construction projects located all over the country. Our goal, mission, and the challenge was to resolve all of these disputes as efficiently as possible, which generally meant avoiding prolonged litigation. Most of his contemporaries had similar duties but opted to do them from the home office on the telephone, saving the expense and demands of actual travel. Not my client. He insisted on meeting with everyone face-to-face, in-person on their turf. He was brilliant. It worked. He was able to accomplish much more in person than anyone else could via telephone. There is something to this face-to-face need.
But what about being physically present but masked?
Is that better or worse than being available virtually?
Is what we gain by being in the same room lost with a forced and unnatural distance between us, plastic barricades, and masks that cover our nose and mouth?
I’m sure there are studies out there and ongoing.
Regardless of the limitations, inefficiencies, and failings of virtual communications, they are probably here to stay, though perhaps to a lesser degree than we have struggled through over the past year. Why? Because our clients will demand it.
Think of all the money saved on travel and extended docket calls. Does it make our life easier? Not really. As we have all learned, being “on” for a lengthy Zoom engagement is exhausting with everyone focused on our faces. It requires more focus and concentration than in-person face-to-face communications. But they may make depositions easier to schedule (when that one person from Idaho can’t get here on that day), mediations more likely to be successful (less arguing over whether the adjuster has to be physically present), attending court hearings in two far-flung locations on the same day, and sizing up a potential client based on more than their voice.