By Attorney Meegan Reis
So, anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate change. They will also tell you that the only thing that makes me more uncomfortable is technology. My collaborative meetings and mediation sessions are filled with white boards and sticky notes using written copies of drafts and budgets with different color highlighters. So, the present state of remote law practicing has been a particular challenge for me. I am happy to report, though, that I recently embraced both and forged ahead with a Zoom collaborative case. In our case, we were already an established team so we had that going for us. Our goal was to try and resolve all the final issues in this last meeting. To say it went smoothly would be an overstatement but we were ultimately able to reach full agreement. There were a few things I learned, however, that I think are helpful to pass on. I am certainly no expert but I think what stuck out for me were those things that we know work as a collaborative team and that may get lost as we move to remote methods.
First, set expectations of patience and glitches. We started out by planning out what we would do when the technology failed. By assuming that the glitches would happen, we were all better able to handle the frozen screen, the lost internet connection and the garbled audio. In collaborative meetings, we start by setting the expectations and the agenda. In this new arena, I think it was important that these be set out as expectations – not complications. Our game plan included all of us sharing cell phone numbers so we could text the other team members if we ran into issues. This actually ended up serving an even better purpose, though, which was direct client control. We all know that in these difficult meetings, the gentle hand, the “calm down” look and the “why don’t we grab some coffee” are all ways we keep things from escalating. That is much harder to do when you are across screens. Instead, my client and I started a text chain. When I noticed a facial expression, or with this particular client, the incessant clicking of his pen, I texted him a private message. This way we were able to “communicate” privately. His responses often included streams of emoji’s that my children use, but it gave him an outlet. It was also a great way to reach out to the coach for help or guidance.
For breaks, we also used the good old fashion cell phone- this time for actual phone calls. I know there are ways to use breakout rooms and have private consults but – in my opinion – the call worked better. Instead of sitting at our computers, I suggested we take 20 minutes and each take a break with our clients. For my client, he and I went for a walk. Getting away from the screens and outside for 20 minutes let both of us reset. Since even I am comfortable on the cell phone, the stress of the technology was also gone. Again, I know there are ways to do this more creatively but when my client and I were both ready to return, we used one of my sticky notes to say we were ready to go. I pride myself on the ability to use the old and the new. Food was an additional element that changed in our remote setting. As a team, this was something we overlooked to start. It was the coach, who about 90 minutes in, required all of us to go and get a snack and a drink to have at our desks. We know these little things make the difference but it was easy to forget and overlook it in the new setting.
Now, there are definitely parts of the technology that worked incredibly well too. During the meeting, we shared the screen of the person who was drafting. This let everyone see and edit the document we were creating. We took turns as counsel doing this so that both of us were the drafters. In this way, the clients had seen the document as it was composed so at the end they were both more comfortable with the final product. The face-to-face session was definitely better than anything that can be accomplished on a conference call and, at certain times, I think it was almost better that we were not all around the same table.
To be honest, what I was not expecting was the complete exhaustion at the end of the meeting. For many of us, we are comfortable in a team meeting. We mesh well as a team and send subtle signals to each other help us manage the emotions. Humor comes more easily and compassion comes out clearer. Trying to do that over a machine seemed to take so much more effort and concentration. The good news is that it can be done. My jokes were more about the fact that I was wearing pajama bottoms and we took a survey regarding the last time any of us had actually worn pants with buttons. We released the tension with breaks and joked about how much toilet paper we could sell on the black market. In the end, in a really uncertain time, we were able to help that family have resolution and clarity about their separation. Not bad for someone who hates change and technology.
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Meegan Reis, who is a partner at the law firm of Dwyer, Donovan and Reis in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She currently practices Family Law and has been fortunate to be able to take her passion for mediation and collaboration and create a firm where that is the focus. Like so many of us, she found that litigation was not the best way to deal with these complicated and emotional family matters. After an inspiring peacemaking training session she became committed to creating a collaborative, mediation and settlement practice. She is also a board member of Collaborative Divorce alliance of New Hampshire and member of the Association of Professional Family Mediators. You can learn more about Meegan and her collaborative practice at: https://www.ddr-law.com/attorney/reis-meegan-esq/