President’s letter July, 2020
Greetings and good tidings, sisters and brothers of the workers’ compensation bench. I hope, once again, that this missive finds you well.
July marks, for me, a return to “in person” hearings. I’m not sure I’m ready. Call me a “wuss” if you like, but I still take this COVID-19 business seriously, and I am squarely within the category of people at risk for the worst the coronavirus has to offer. I wear my mask in public places, and try and avoid being in close proximity to anyone, whether they are wearing a mask or not. And most are not. Given the ease with which this virus is transmitted, I would prefer to avoid unnecessary contact with people whose health and past exposure is unknown and unknowable.
When we do go “live,” we are still supposed to maintain “social distancing” and avoid having groups of people congregating. That sounds good, but it doesn’t sound much like a typical docket call, where members of the bar congregate and tell stories, meet with their clients and witnesses, and negotiate across a desk or conference table, all while waiting for their turn in court. We’ll have to stagger hearings, so one group gets out before the next gets in. And, I’ll need to reconfigure my courtroom to provide the required six-foot separation between the attorneys, witnesses, the court reporter, and me. I am fortunate in that I have a large courtroom where that is feasible. I know that a lot of courtrooms and hearing rooms are simply not suited to maintaining six feet of separation. There also remain a lot of questions about how we will comply with state prescribed protocols for disinfecting surfaces, including tables, seating, and door handles, between hearings. Just like when the coronavirus first hit, we will be learning and adapting on the fly. Are you ready to go back to “business as usual?”
I have not held an “in person” hearing since early March, and have become accustomed to holding “virtual” hearings, by CourtCall, GoToMeeting, Skype or, more recently, Zoom. Speaking solely for myself, CourtCall provided me with the best “experience,” because CourtCall does all the “heavy lifting” of making sure each participant’s technological “assets” (e.g., computer, camera, microphone, internet connection), are equal to the task, prior to the hearing. On the day and time of hearing, CourtCall collects the participants and tells you when they are connected and ready to proceed. CourtCall keeps an operator on the line during the hearing to respond to any technical issues that may arise. The CourtCall operator can even place parties in a virtual “conference room,” for private discussions between attorney and client, or facilitate negotiations among counsel. There is what I consider a nominal cost for a litigant to use CourtCall’s services, but no cost to the court. If you have to conduct a virtual hearing, CourtCall provides the “Cadillac” of videoconferencing platforms, and one keyed to the needs of the legal community.
My second choice for conducting virtual hearings is Zoom. Back in late February, a Washington, D.C. administrative law judge inquired about attending our Spring Boot Camp by Zoom. At the time, I did not even know what “Zoom” was. Now I consider it my “go-to” platform for conference calls, videoconferences, and virtual hearings. While CourtCall charges the litigants, but not the courts, Zoom is available to the courts by license, with no cost to the litigants. While Zoom does not have all the “bells and whistles” of CourtCall, it runs a close second, and attorneys seem to like it because it costs them and their clients nothing. From my experience, Zoom (the government/”pro” license) provides the ease of use and technological stability and security necessary for a hearing. During the lockdown, I used Zoom for the full scope of hearings I conducted, from pre-hearing settlement conferences, to preliminary hearings, to “regular hearings” (the Kansas vernacular for the trial as to the ultimate impairment or disability, where everything from compensability to computation of wage to determining residual disability), and all post-award proceedings. Like CourtCall, the judge can determine who can attend the hearing, and can place litigants in virtual conference rooms, pending their appearances. Zoom might even be easier to use for sharing documents than CourtCall.
If I had my choice, I would keep doing hearings by Zoom. But I don’t, so I’ll adapt and move on. However, my experience with Zoom has been so positive that I will continue to offer hearings by Zoom to anyone that wants them.
Share your experiences on how you managed your docket during the lockdown. What videoconferencing platform(s) did you use? What did you find helpful? What would you counsel others to avoid? Your thoughts and contributions will be appreciated by all, as we all have had to adapt to a new normal, and the future.
July is also significant because NAWCJ loses one of its long-term members, when Kentucky Administrative Law Judge Jane Rice Williams’ term ends July 14, 2020. Judge Williams was a fixture in NAWCJ when I started attending the annual NAWCJ Judiciary College some ten years ago. She serves on the NAWCJ Board, and chaired the committee responsible for the NAWCJ website. In addition to her many contributions to the growth of NAWCJ, Jane’s friendly smile and great sense of humor will be sorely missed. Fare thee well, Jane!
Later on this month, everyone who has paid her/his NAWCJ annual dues will be provided a link to a SurveyMonkey survey/ballot, to vote on the 2020-2021 officers and directors of NAWCJ. The candidates are listed elsewhere in this issue of the Lex and Verum. Please respond to the survey by voting. This virtual election of officers is being conducted due to the cancelation of the 2020 NAWCJ Judiciary College, and business meeting where the election would have been otherwise held. Vote for and support the incoming slate of officers and directors. They are a great group of people and will lead NAWCJ to all it can achieve.
Be well, and care for one another.