Over the past four years, those in the civil litigation sphere – whether plaintiff or defense counsel – have seen a change in the daily practice of many litigators.

Initially, this was out of necessity in early 2020 when, for months, many had to work from home as the world dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. Later, as the post-COVID way of life became the norm, many litigators have incorporated these changes into their regular practice.

We Attend More Virtual Meetings

In spring and summer 2020, most of us became adept at using Zoom and other apps to meet with clients and co-counsel, mediate cases, and attend hearings.

Now that we have “reopened,” there are still times when a virtual conference is extremely helpful. For example, for an insurance defense attorney whose insured client is two to three hours away, it may make practical sense to schedule a virtual initial meeting with the client. It saves the attorney’s time, which would otherwise be spent on the road, getting to and from what may amount to only a 45-to-60-minute meeting. Likewise, for the plaintiff’s attorney, holding semi-regular virtual “check-ins” with clients to see how their medical care is progressing can be welcome for those who otherwise must take time off work to meet with their attorney.

Virtual Court Hearings: Yes or No?

Whether or not court hearings can be virtual remains up to the judge presiding over the case. Many scheduling conferences are now held this way rather than by phone or in person. Virtual appearances also can be helpful in more complicated cases where there are a number of attorneys involved, some who may need to report on what happens in a hearing but are not actually taking any position.

However, if it appears that most parties will be appearing in person, sensible practitioners may want to make sure they have permission from the judge for a virtual appearance – if it is not outrightly indicated that such an appearance is permissible on the notice of hearing.

Virtual Mediations: Yes or No?

Mediation remains a practice area where attorneys seem divided on which is better: in-person or virtual. Virtual mediations allow the parties to come together more quickly, since travel time does not need to be accounted for. It also allows the litigants to use mediators who, while geographically far away, are well suited for a particularly challenging or unique type of case.

There are also challenges with virtual mediations. It can be harder for the mediator to gain rapport with noncorporate clients such as plaintiffs in personal injury matters. This can be paramount, since mediators often need to share their assessment of the challenges associated with the litigant’s case should it proceed to trial.

Additionally, it is harder for a frustrated litigant to walk away from an in-person mediation, as compared to parties simply shutting down their computer screens. For these reasons, sometimes insisting on an in-person mediation might be the best way to ensure success.

Katelyn Sandfort headshot Katelyn Sandfort, U.W. 2010, is a shareholder with Herrling Clark Law Firm, Ltd., in Appleton, where she focuses on personal injury matters.

Other Considerations for Virtual Meetings

Whether it is a hearing, mediation, meeting, or something else, attorneys should always be considerate of whether their client may struggle with the technology required by virtual appearances.

If it seems unlikely that clients have the resources available or technological savviness to access a virtual meeting – so that they are visible and can be heard – then it may be best to avoid virtual conferences.

More of Us Work from Home Now

Gone are the days when most civil litigation attorneys worked exclusively in their office. Many attorneys were forced during the pandemic to learn how to work remotely.

For some, that was a welcome change. Others found it challenging to stay focused on work, if also confronted with the daily reminders of home tasks that also need to be completed.

Regardless of where you find yourself in this mix, there is certainly a growing flexibility with firms and insurance companies to allow attorneys to work from home – on occasion, or regularly, or for some, full time.

How We Dress Has Changed

The most trivial of the post-COVID changes in this article has to do with the daily attire of civil litigation attorneys.

Now, almost universally, there is a laxity in the way people dress. Attorneys who before the COVID shutdown always wore a suit or sport jacket to a client meeting, mediation, or deposition now may be comfortable doing so with nice slacks and a button down or sweater.

However, the general move to a more “comfortable” feel should be done with care. An in-person appearance in court still requires professional attire.

Be mindful that, while you and other attorneys in your geographic region may be accustomed to dressing more casually now even in depositions, clients may be put off by the lack of formality – or, even worse, take it as evidence that their attorneys do not take their case seriously.

Some attorneys may see this trend toward more casual attire as a welcome change – the opportunity to put those suit jackets in the closet only to be taken out for hearings and trial. Others see it as a degradation of the legal profession.

Regardless, it seems likely that this new more relaxed attorney “dress code” is here to stay.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Litigation Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Litigation Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.