‘I haven’t seen a single person’: Things have changed inside the courthouses

As some post-COVID-19 court cases reconsider how they are proceeding, some litigators say their continued use of remote technology is depriving them of an important element of their practice.

Lawyers, used to hearings on motions or status conferences being held in person in days leading up to the pandemic, say the chance to rub shoulders with colleagues on trips to the courthouse is lost when pre-trial hearings are conducted over Zoom.

Holding such hearings remotely, even after the COVID threat has subsided, allows judges and trial attorneys to work more efficiently. Lawyers no longer have to travel an hour or two for a 15-minute hearing.

But meetings via remote technology mean the end of informal, face-to-face meetings with colleagues they would meet at such events, and these meetings sometimes resulted in tangible benefits like the settlement of a case.

‘I miss it’

Lawyers say they enjoy these informal meetings, but they also offer a type of class that helps them learn about intangible aspects of the profession, such as power structures in a particular courthouse. And the loss is particularly acute for young lawyers who are cut off from a learning opportunity, these lawyers said.

Paul da Costa by Snyder Sarlo D'Aniello Maceri & da Costa.  courtesy photo Paul da Costa by Snyder Sarno D’Aniello Maceri & da Costa. courtesy photo

At some hearings, lawyers have to wait until they are called before the judge, which means there’s “a lot of downtime” in the courtroom, said Paul da Costa of Snyder Sarno D’Aniello Maceri & da Costa in Roseland. New Jersey.

“That downtime inevitably leads to very friendly, collegial conversations, where they check up on what’s going on with their family life and personal issues. It’s also a place to talk business and try to settle cases or at least bridge the gap of where the case was when you walked in that morning versus when you walked out that night.” said Costa.

The move to more distant hearings allows attorneys to be more flexible as they can multitask while waiting to speak to the judge, and this is particularly important for plaintiff attorneys who, unlike their defense counterparts, do not have hourly calls for the court will bill visits, da Costa said.

Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman’s Beth Baldinger/Photo courtesy

“I miss it mostly for the collegial, social aspect, but there’s no doubt that meeting someone face-to-face in any setting has a higher chance of achieving something than when I’m there my office and my opponent is in her office,” da Costa said.

The move to more distant hearings had a major impact on the experience of going to court, said Beth Baldinger, an attorney at Mazie Slater Katz & Freeman in Roseland, New Jersey, who represents victims of catastrophic injuries.

Previously, attorneys attending an application hearing had to deal with a lack of parking and a line to enter the building. But when she recently visited the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, New Jersey, for a hearing, there was plenty of parking and no line, Baldinger said.

“I didn’t see a single person. It was eerie and a stark reminder of how drastically the practice has changed. Those halls used to be packed and bustling, and you saw all the people you’ve known over the years,” she said.

Young lawyers ‘hurt the most’

Darl Champion by Champion Firm. Photo Courtesy/

A reduction in in-person hearings is beneficial for established attorneys because of greater efficiency, but not for attorneys who are just starting out, said Christopher Placitella, mass torts and class action attorney for Cohen, Placitella & Roth at Red Bank. New Jersey.

The camaraderie that develops from such informal meetings helps young attorneys acclimatize and develop a sense of belonging, Placitella said. When he was a junior attorney and visited a courthouse on a motion, he would sit and watch trials to see how attorneys behaved in front of a judge, he said.

“It’s the young lawyers who get hurt the most,” Placitella said.

Baldinger is also concerned about how the elimination of informal exchanges with colleagues will affect the younger lawyers in her firm.

“They are smart, they are talented. You do the job – that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you really want to turn a litigator into a litigator, how do you do that with Zoom?” Baldinger said.

Baldinger’s employees “only know the law through the computer. You don’t stand up in front of a judge. It’s not the same,” she said.

“Find ways of communication”

Richard H. Goldman, Senior Counsel at Sullivan & Worcester. courtesy photo

Courts across the country vary in how much remote-trial technology they use.

Darl Champion, a personal injury attorney in Marietta, Ga., says he doesn’t have many pretrial hearings and that investigations and testimonies are generally done without court involvement. Procedures in and around Atlanta are mostly the same as they were before COVID-19, he said. Testimonies are sometimes handled remotely, but remote technology is not generally used for pre-trial purposes, he said.

“Most of the time in your civil cases, you can go through the filing and investigation process without having to personally interact with the court,” Champion said.

Richard Goldman, an attorney at Sullivan & Worcester in Boston, supports those attorneys who lament the loss of informal interactions in the age of Zoom. Goldman, who has written about attorney networking, said that “building and maintaining relationships is key to being a successful person and a successful attorney.”

Goldman, who recounts business referrals he’s received from professional contacts, said those who help others are happier and more successful in the long run. Those attorneys who lament the proliferation of remote technology because of its tendency to cut off informal interactions should consider finding other ways to connect with colleagues, he said. That can mean inviting a colleague over for lunch or dinner, or simply sending a phone call or email.

Similarly, attorneys concerned that the development of their younger peers will be hampered by the loss of informal courthouse interactions should vigorously take the lead by planning a replacement to fill the gap.

“You have to be more proactive,” Goldman said. “I think people need to recognize the limitations imposed by COVID, but find ways to communicate in order for communication to continue.”