My law partner and I stared out our office windows on a blustery day in March 2020. Gazing upon an eerily deserted Capitol Square in Madison, we digested what living in a pandemic meant.
We were not able to wrap our minds around it at the time. The virus was a spring snowstorm bearing down on Wisconsin in the early days. We wrestled with tasks that had been mundane. How does a person safely go grocery shopping and why isn’t there toilet paper?
We obsessed about whether we would be able to sustain a legal practice. With the world coming to a halt, would there be new business? How would we deal with all of our open cases? “There is no way they can close the courts for more than two weeks,” my partner said. “Think of the backlog.”
Tim Verhoff, U.W. 1999, is a former prosecutor in Dane County. He practices exclusively in the area of criminal law.
Humans, however, are remarkable creatures, able to adapt to circumstance. I was amazed at how quickly Zoom technology was integrated into the court system and our practice. Before long, my law partner and I were appearing for all types of hearings remotely.
We conducted initial appearances, preliminary hearings, arraignments, pretrial conferences, evidentiary hearings, and plea and sentencing hearings via Zoom. We met with clients via video conferencing. I even conducted a few court trials via Zoom.
Use of such technology was necessary if not perfect. Sometimes the judge, a witness, or my client cut out. I had a trial where the police officer was in quarantine without his reports, requiring me to “refresh recollection” in a manner that did not exactly comport with the rules of evidence.
But we rolled with it. Cases moved forward, even if the process left me feeling less satisfaction with the job. Practicing law as a Zoom attorney is not what I signed up for in law school.
As Wisconsin opens again, I am happy to get back into the courtroom. Live hearings are for the best. Negotiations are more productive in person. The impact of argument is reduced when it comes through a monitor. Cross-examination via computer falls flat.
But there are practices adopted in the pandemic that have proven useful. Perfunctory hearings such as initial appearances, arraignments, and status conferences are much more efficient via video conferencing. It saves the attorneys travel time to and from various courthouses around the state. It allows lawyers to appear at multiple hearings in several counties within minutes, obviating the need to reschedule conflicting hearing. It is less daunting for clients.
Most importantly, it opens attorney access to clients.
Time is a lawyer’s stock in trade. Attorneys must factor travel time when setting fees. The cost savings to a client who must pay an attorney to attend a 15-minute Zoom call is tremendous compared to the paying the lawyer to attend the same, 15-minute perfunctory hearing that also requests a two-hour commute.
The need for affordable access to lawyers is imperative to achieving fairness in the court system. If productive use of technology can facilitate access for the accused, it should be preserved as we move forward.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
Criminal Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar
sections or the
Criminal Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.