Virtual Proceedings in the COVID Era
By Alex M. Clark, CPA, CFE, Senior Manager, Advisory Services
As the world turned seemingly on its head, professional valuation and litigation services were certainly not spared from the impact of COVID-19 on business operations. In-person meetings, mediations, and court appearances with clients and attorneys have been replaced by conference calls and video conferences. For better or worse, digital communication is the wave of the future and will likely impact the way we operate from here on out.
For both simple meetings and complex gatherings, many have flocked to Zoom, as reflected in the company’s stock price more than doubling this year. Other platforms and applications include Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting, Google Hangouts, Skype, and WebEx, which have enabled many of us to continue “meeting” with one another in a similar fashion with somewhat more security.
No matter what program is used, some basic technological issues often arise: problems with users enabling video and audio, and maintaining a Wi-Fi connection for the duration of the meeting. Other complications include the use of devices that do not have cameras, the use of multiple devices, and distracting background noise, whether the wind or text message alerts. These types of problems can be largely eliminated once everyone becomes more accustomed to using virtual media and the various features of the software.
Another issue is the presence of other bodies — people and pets — in the home office; I’ve been “zoom bombed” by my wife and three-month-old son more times than I would care to share! Thankfully, most people seem to be very understanding given the circumstances, and it brings a sort of humanity to the situation we are all facing – quite frankly, most people would rather see my adorable baby than me anyway.
For the most part, the New Jersey courts have endeavored to maintain business as usual, employing these virtual methods for proceedings where possible. Case management conferences, hearings and even some trials are happening over the internet, where the judge appears in his or her robe and the attorneys and clients check in from their respective homes or offices. Much of the same work can be accomplished virtually as in person, but without the added time of commuting or long waits at the courthouse for the case to be called.
Mediations, too, have been successful from the virtual perspective. All of the parties are able to sign into the meeting individually, and the mediator has the ability to control the larger group. Attorneys, accountants and the clients on each side are put into individual breakout rooms, just as would happen in person. There, the respective groups can speak freely and discuss confidential matters without the possibility of the other side overhearing them. The mediator has the ability to toggle back and forth between each room and to bring the whole group together when necessary. Although attendees have to contend with talking over each other, the mediator has the ability to mute anyone or everyone at any time, which can prove extremely helpful when tensions are running high.
Importantly, participants have the ability to access their computer files and any necessary documents, which makes these virtual meetings especially efficient. For instance, it is often necessary to send a document instantaneously or to “share” a computer screen to point out specific facts and figures on a schedule or in a report. Ultimately, this decreases the amount of follow-up discovery that needs to be sent after a typical mediation, and it can serve to help make an important argument in the moment. That can translate to a faster case resolution.
One main drawback that comes with virtual meetings, particularly for client-facing professionals, is the lack of personal interaction and relationship-building. Less small talk occurs during meetings, which can be seen as more efficient, but it also makes it more difficult to relate to a client on a personal basis. Also lost is the ability to see and interpret body language as effectively.
Nevertheless, as we begin to return to our office buildings, it is likely that social distancing measures will remain in place for some time. Virtual meetings, mediations, and court appearances are not disappearing; virtual, to some extent, is in our future. In time, this “new normal” may very well just become the “normal.” As always, with so much up in the air and new regulations and stimulus being announced daily, it is more important than ever to consult with your trusted accountants, attorneys, and advisors (likely via video conference!), who are working tirelessly to become most effective with this new approach to handling cases.
Richard Sanvenero Jr., Esq.; The Law Office of Timothy F. McGoughran, LLC