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Decorum for virtual court proceedings

by Natalia Vander Laan

The legal profession traditionally follows certain rules of decorum. Judges wear black robes and attorneys, clients, witnesses, and jurors are encouraged to dress suitably and modestly. This year, while the venue for court hearings has changed to online to enable social distancing, the courtroom dress code has not changed…or has it?

There are reports across the country of court hearing participants, attorneys, employees, and witnesses alike wearing too casual of clothing or appearing in pajamas, a beach cover-up over a swimsuit, or even shirtless. Recently, colleagues shared stories of participants appearing from a bath tub or walking around the room in underwear!

In response, some judges called for attorneys to be professional, more presentable, and to conduct themselves during online court hearings as if present in actual court. Some courts have stricter dress codes than others, not only for attorneys but also for clients, witnesses, and spectators. The intent certainly is not to obstruct access to justice for some by judging people on their clothes, but while judges continue to wear robes during the online hearings, other participants should show their respect for the court by dressing appropriately and neatly.

Furthermore, while a bookshelf background is not required, online hearing participants should be aware of their surroundings. Appearing in bed or poolside not only disrespects the court but also makes it difficult to treat one seriously. Undoubtedly, large law firms have resources to appear in the best possible way, but the requirement to appear in an appropriate environment is not intended to judge people based on their surroundings but, rather, simply to preserve the dignity of the court and the seriousness of the proceedings.

It is equally important to pay attention during the online hearings. Working on the computer, working out, walking out of the room because something was left on the stove, or even sleeping in bed are just few examples of recent inappropriate behavior during online proceedings.

The video platforms also often highlight the person speaking the loudest, making it difficult to raise an objection or even to hear the judge address the objection. An attorney may be looking down at his or her files and not see the judge respond to an objection because the audio will remain with the witness rather than the judge. Therefore, it is particularly important to pay attention and watch the screen during the online proceedings in order to avoid any prejudice that may result from inattentiveness.

Some courts are more technologically advanced than others. However, many courts began to issue guidelines and offer webinars on how to use video conferencing, how to dress, where to sit, or even how to mute one’s own microphone.

Technology can be helpful and it allows the courts to keep up with the legal obligation of court hearings while most communities remain at home. However, the use of videoconferencing has its challenges as it is inducive of too casual a look and behavior. Therefore, attorneys and their clients should keep in mind that a video hearing is not a casual phone conversation but rather still a court hearing and the appearance and behavior respectful to the court and its function should be preserved. So, if you do not feel like dressing up, dress properly from the waist up, wear at least sweat pants and do not get up during the hearing.

Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney and owner of Vander Laan Law Firm