Gov. Inslee has announced mandatory "social distancing" measures for the State of Washington; K-12 schools are closed until late April; universities have transitioned to distance learning; conferences have been cancelled; hand sanitizer is sold out in stores and online. The novel Coronoavirus (Covid-19) – recently classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization – has captured our attention and our fears, overshadowing everything else. Several people have died in our state, and many more fatalities are reported all over the world. My heart goes out to all who have been affected by such losses.
Yet despite tragedy and uncertainty, life and work continue.
Impact on the Legal Community
Just this morning, someone posted a question on one of my lawyer listservs asking how members of the legal community are dealing with the pandemic. Are lawyers working from home, or meeting with clients in their offices? How are lawyers protecting themselves, their staff, and their clients? How are lawyers managing their work and client load, especially if they have children at home for whom school has been cancelled?
Use of Technology
We are fortunate to live in an era in which technology is readily available, and I am yet more fortunate in that I work from a home office that is set up to take full advantage of such technology.
In the past, I have used video-conferences for occasional calls and presentations, and have conducted a handful of mediations by phone, shuttle-style.
I am currently in the midst of three larger mediation projects, ranging from 10 to 35 participants. For all three mediations, we made the decision that I would speak to each participant individually as the first step in the process, in order to learn perspectives and establish trust. And because all three sets of clients are based in Eastern Washington, we decided to schedule all individual contacts via video-conferencing technology.
Video-Conferencing Technology in Mediation
I use Zoom, and I suspect that there are other providers that offer the same or similar capabilities.
Zoom provides multiple options for one-on-one calls using a phone or computer audio, multi-party conference calls, and video-conferencing with one or more parties across platforms (phones, tablets, PCs, etc.). Especially relevant to mediation, it provides an option for "breakout rooms" to engage in private conversations with individuals or groups of participants while the meeting is ongoing. And it allows for in-meeting file transfers, screen sharing, and real-time annotations.
In mediation, this means that my clients and I can effectively accomplish many of the same things that would occur in a physical conference room. We can engage in private and confidential conversations, and bring participants together in the same room if necessary. Clients can show me relevant documents, and share documents with other participants. Attorneys can collaboratively create a settlement agreement by annotating draft language in real time.
Imperfect but Essential
As we all know, the vast majority of communication is non-verbal, occurring through facial expressions, eye contact, and body language. As such, I remain convinced that in-person interaction is generally far superior to any technology that is currently available.
However, solutions such as Zoom enable "social distancing" in order to protect ourselves and others, while also allowing us to provide continued excellent service to our clients.
And once we have defeated this pandemic, as we surely will, technology remains a viable option for clients who for whatever reason cannot be in the same location at the same time.
In the meantime, stay safe and healthy!