Taking your Inn, and your Practice, Online—Welcoming Members to the Virtual Courts

The Bencher—July/August 2020

By Timothy J. Conlon, Esquire

In mid-March, my restaurant guru called with a problem: She wasn’t certain we would be able to count on a venue. There was talk of canceling the meeting, putting the group that was on track for an April presentation on ice until June. In that moment I pivoted; the team had worked hard and had a good program, so I decided we should take it online.

We had thought about doing a webinar in the past, but there were always reasons not to try something that could be complicated. Would we record the meeting? How many people would attend? What would it cost? As of mid-March these questions needed to get answered. If necessity is the mother of invention, we were going to have to get inventive quickly.

We scheduled the next pupillage group meeting via GoToMeeting and found out three things immediately. First, people loved the opportunity to see each other and catch up. At that time we were just beginning the “shutdown,” but folks appreciated the chance to connect. Second, because no one had to travel to get to the meeting, attendance was great. Finally, we learned that attorneys’ skills in getting online and presenting professionally varied—by a lot. We were learning, but it was going to be challenge.

We met that challenge with internal resources. The more tech savvy members of the Inn stepped up. I tapped three members and dubbed them the “Tech Team.” They became production assistants. We scheduled online sessions to explore, push, and practice. We learned how to control views, make people panelists and co-hosts, mute and un-mute mikes, and control a virtual stage. We worked from a cue sheet, akin to the production chart that would be used for a professionally produced live or virtual event.

Inspired by prep session one, we scheduled a “dress rehearsal” called “Cocktails and Cue Cards.” The executive board was invited to watch and join us online for drinks, which they did. People had fun and saw that we might just pull this off—at which point more news broke. Local judges had kept the Inn updated on courthouse closures and other emergent issues, which we had passed along to members as quickly as possible. A couple of judges had conducted proceedings online as well, and word of these remote hearings was spreading ahead of any formal rules from the court. At that point our meeting, scheduled for April 2, took on new significance.

Days before our meeting, I was scheduled to speak with legal counsel to the court, as I was looking to make sure I was telling members what the court wanted them to know. Just as I was about to get on the line, I was told that the chief judge had asked to be on the call. Well, sure! I learned a lot about the concerns the court had, discussed how one might phase in various hearings, and promised the support of our members in getting things off the ground.

In the few days between that call and our April 2 meeting, the beginnings of a plan for a special add-on to the meeting emerged. Our April event would have “news from the frontlines,” as legal counsel for the Family Court and the chief clerk briefed members on how the court would begin to move to online hearings. We did “green room” checks with them, as we did for all our presenters, so they would be comfortable and the production would be smooth. Their presentation at the very outset of our meeting went very well, and then there was a surprise.

Our chief judge, who had been watching behind the scenes as his staff spoke to the Inn, stepped on camera and decided to say a few words. What ensued was an open dialogue on cooperation in opening the courts and keeping everyone safe. That discussion segued into pending legislation of interest to our members about how the bar and the courts could cooperate to make a difficult situation work.

Our regular meeting went forward thereafter, controlled by the Tech Team like it was an evening talk show, broadcast live. Mind you, at this point the talk shows had just started their “live from home” broadcasts. At the end members drank, joked around, and celebrated. The Zoom ticker showed us that we had record attendance for any Inn meeting in our history.

With some success under our belts, we pressed forward to plan our next meeting, which was a tall order. At the Gallogly Inn, the May Seminar is a special event. Decades ago, one of our founders, Magistrate Edward H. Newman, started a tradition of running a seminar each May featuring a topic that would be of interest to our members (we are a family court Inn) and the bar in general.

Now called the Newman Seminar, it is the only meeting that non-members can attend. We invite speakers from outside the organization and charge admission. Members get a discount, and a lot of people pitch in to help the Inn raise money for a scholarship to the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA), which is awarded to a member. There was certainly not going to be a large gathering for dinner at a hotel in mid-May, so what could we do to draw a crowd and raise money during the COVID-19 crisis?

The simple answer was to make the problem part of the solution. On the way back from a Leaders Summit two years ago, I talked with Veronica Assalone, Esquire, then incoming secretary, about an idea for a Deposition College, something that brought the NITA experience home for local attorneys by staging days of training on doing depositions. You would generally have to travel out of state and pay over $1,000 for such an intense program.

My thought was that we could bring attendees into our pupillage groups and make the group meetings working sessions to hone deposition skills. One problem had been how to get folks to commit out-of-office time to the sessions and juggle logistics of meetings, so this seemed like an ideal opportunity to stage a remote college event.

Moreover, since members were now struggling to figure out how to handle a digital court appearance (or a virtual client meeting) we could fold training for members on virtual practice into the mix. “Virtual Lawyering—A (Remote) Deposition College” was born. The Tech Team was up for it, so Veronica, member William Devine, Esquire, and I each agreed to take a “team” of attendees and one Tech Team member for support, and we promoted the event to the Bar. There was a Superior Court judge, Brian P. Stern, who had been busy revamping his calendar to run online, so we invited him. Nicholas Hemond, Esquire, a member who practiced in District and Superior Court was tasked to handle an overview of the digital court rules that were evolving for those forums.

But that was just part of the May 21 main event. In the weeks leading up to that evening, Veronica, Bill, and I each did three one-hour continuing legal education workshops for our respective teams. The first focused on the nuts and bolts of taking your practice online and covered everything from checking your mike (before a hearing, please) to virtual courtroom decorum and the ethics of security and protecting client confidences.

The second was about how to prepare for a remote deposition or hearing, which covered the use of electronic documents, screen sharing, document indexing, and how to integrate your case documents into a working trial or deposition outline to prepare for a remote presentation. We invited seasoned trial attorneys that signed up for the program to show how they outlined our sample fact pattern. They had to be taught how to share a screen, but that was part of the lesson! Finally, we had a workshop on preparing the client for a remote deposition that featured a mock online client meeting, going over the mechanics and substance of a remote meeting in preparation for remote testimony.

What became apparent as we went through these workshops was that we had a much better chance to get persons from outside the Inn really involved. They enjoyed being part of a pupillage group, benefited from the experience, and thanked us for including them. Older members of the Bar weren’t so much learning about how to do a deposition, as they were learning how to do it in a virtual environment and learning new technology that upped their deposition game. Much of that came in the form of reverse mentoring, with our younger members and the tech team leading the way.

On the flip side, those older hands had real insight into how to handle a difficult line of questioning, how to disarm a witness and get “easy” concessions, and how to protect the record in a fight. They were happy to share. We had a win-win, bringing those that needed help with the tech and those that needed help learning deposition skills together.

All this culminated in our main event. Nick started with an overview of digital practice in other trial courts, which included a summary of rules that were announced just hours before the meeting. Stern’s discussion about his calendar led to a discussion about the need for the courts and the Bar to adapt and the reality that some of these innovations might be on scene for a while, not just because of necessity but because they just worked. We then concluded with a showdown: Two members of one team served as lead and co-counsel at a mock deposition of a witness prepared by another team and represented by two members of the third team.

Members got to see the techniques that were part of the seminar play out at an online remote deposition, and when things got out of hand, we called in yet another judge. The leading case in our jurisdiction on deposition misconduct is Kelvey v. Coughlin, 625 A. 2d 775 (RI 1993). Everyone in Rhode Island that does litigation knows Kelvey and the judge who wrote the trial court decision that led to what was a groundbreaking decision at the time. She was kind enough to “take the call” from the deposition and weigh in, delivering what one member later described as a treatise on deposition law remotely to our group.

From all of this, we learned several things. First, don’t be afraid to push available options to emulate your old traditions. You may find some pleasant surprises. Not only did we have excellent attendance and engagement, but we made more money for our scholarship fund than we typically did, charging less for a ticket and cutting out the meal and room charges. Instead of a house audiovisual fee, which often ran hundreds for our May Seminar, we paid $40 for Zoom’s webinar package.
Second, there are real advantages in moving online. Getting judges to commit to appear was easier when all they had to do was dial or log in. Shifting details of the program, responding to last-minute changes, and covering breaking events is easier when your Inn (and your practice) is virtual. Controlling Q&A and tracking questions was easy, and the ability to “chat” with fellow panelists about logistics during presentation is great. Finally, I suspect that because of some of these advantages, virtual meetings (and remote hearings) will continue to play a role going forward.

We all want the courts to open, and we all enjoy our dinners out with colleagues as part of the Inn experience. At some point, we will be back to “normal.” But no one likes spending an hour rushing from courthouse to courthouse for 30 minutes of proceedings, and there is a lot that an Inn can do to engage and assist members when you can point and click your way to a meeting.

Timothy J. Conlon, Esquire, is an attorney in the firm of TJC•ESQ in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the president of the Edward P. Gallogly America Inn of Court in Providence, Kent and Newport Counties.

© 2020 By Timothy J. Conlon, Esq. This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.