"Can you hear me judge? I'm here, live, I'm not a cat!" It was a scene shared around the world by lawyers and regular remote workers alike – a lawyer attending a virtual court hearing in Texas experienced a hilarious mishap when he accidentally activated the “cat filter” on his Zoom call and suddenly appeared to be a wide-eyed and alarmed white cat to the judge and his colleagues on the call.
This viral story made for a great laugh for many of us who are now all-too-familiar with the technical difficulties and mishaps that have come with the great move to digital platforms and video calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it also raises a concerning point: that even after a year of work from home and video meetings becoming commonplace many legal professional still haven’t figured how to use their software or set up their appearance.
Awkward angles, bad audio, and technical difficulties were understandable in early 2020, but as time advances the persistence of these issues has become less sympathetic and more reflective of a lack of polish and care. More importantly, these issues can continue to be a huge detriment to effective communication and advocacy with, or on behalf of, clients. A bad echo on a call can discourage a client from asking questions or participating effectively, poor audio setup can result in counsel speaking over an arbitrator or judge when they have a critical question, and general technical difficulties can quickly result in lost time during a tightly scheduled meeting or hearing.
Simply put, technical difficulties, bad video setups, and bad video etiquette are still happening and can have a big impact on your work and how your client or the judge sees you. However, these obstacles can be overcome by reviewing and implementing the following tips and tricks:
Lighting: Make sure you have adequate lighting and avoid sitting in the dark. Webcams often struggle to maintain quality and detail in low light scenarios, and other parties in your call may not be able to see your face clearly if you are sitting in the dark. However, you should also make sure you do not have any open windows or significant light sources in your background as they can also overwhelm or “blow out” a webcam and make it hard to see your face with significant backlight. Ideally, you should have a moderate light source located behind the webcam directed towards you in order to properly light your face.
If you find that your workspace is still dark, there are backlight issues from unavoidable windows behind you, or even if overhead lights are adequate but casting unappealing lighting, here are some options to correct the issue:
- No Cost Fix: The cheap and easy way to get better lighting is to orient your setup so that you are facing a bright window when it is light out
- Advanced Fix: If the layout of your workspace doesn’t permit an easy fix to lighting, then the best and still reasonable solution is to purchase an extra desk lamp, an adjustable ring light, or even a key light to use in your setup to put light on your face as needed. Cheap USB-powered ring lights can be ordered online from a variety of sources, can be plugged into a laptop or computer, and often even come with adjustable lighting settings to help get the perfect appearance.
Placement: Even with good lighting you might be finding that your video feed does not look great, potentially because of an awkward or distracting angle. While being a cinematographer should not be a requirement to get on a video call, it does help to think of the angle and arrangement of your video setup from a framing perspective. Having a webcam sit far below shoulder height can create an awkward and unflattering chin shot. Similarly, having a webcam set off to the side while you watch a monitor somewhere else can you make you look distracted or disengaged to other people on a video call, even though you might be looking right at their faces on your screen. The best setup both for general appearance and to help other participants feel like you are engaged is to have your camera situated in front of you, around eye level, and near wherever your line of sight is generally directed.
If using a laptop with an integrated webcam you can achieve this first by raising up the laptop by using a laptop stand or even some books (most lawyers have a stack of legal texts perfect for this situation!) so that the laptop is generally at eye level. It is also recommended that you use the laptop screen itself for watching the other video callers or reading any documents you are referencing, as that way it generally appears to the rest of the participants that you are “making eye contact” with the camera and them, rather than appearing to look elsewhere. Of course, eye contact is tricky with video calls in general and if you are reading lengthy text or surfing the web when on video it will be apparent to others by your eye movement, but this setup is much better for creating a greater feeling of engagement and presence with the other parties in a call.
If you are using an external webcam the fix is a bit simpler, just set your webcam on top of the main screen you are using for the video call and documents. Even if you are referencing other screens or physical documents, the goal is that most of the time you will appear to be “looking at” the rest of the video participants through the camera.
Bad Video Quality: If you are getting low-detail or grainy video quality there are two potential causes and solutions. The first and most likely cause of grainy or poor video quality is an internet connection issue. Low speed internet, limited bandwidth, or a weak connection on a network can cause video compression issues in video call software, creating the grainy video quality we have all seen at some point. The fix for this can be a bit tricky. Internet-based video quality issues can potentially be fixed by moving closer to a wireless router, plugging into a router by ethernet cable, or even using a less busy network. However, in some cases the local connection between a computer and the network is good, and the issue is actually coming from the internet service provider, the software you are using, an old laptop, or even the connections of the other video participants (someone else having a bad connection can make their outgoing video appear as lower quality to other participants with perfectly fine connections). Given how complex this issue can be, the best thing to do is simply to make sure that you have a reasonably strong and stable connection to your network if you can, and to explore faster or more stable internet with your service provider if you are having issues.
If you find that you have a great internet connection but your video just generally appears grainy or low resolution, then the alternative cause may be a poor-quality webcam. Integrated webcams on laptops are great for their portability and ease of use, but are often have limited performance and clarity due to their compact size and design requirements. Similarly, older external webcams may not have the ability to put out high quality video simply as a result of their older technology and limitations. If you are looking for better quality video with a higher resolution a great solution is to obtain a simple external webcam. Modern webcams are often affordable, have much better video quality, and generally are very easy to use right out of the box by simply plugging them in to the computer via USB. In the alternative, if you want high quality video and can sacrifice extensive screen size, you can even use an every day smartphone. Many of us carry high end phones these days, and the cameras in these often surpass older or integrated laptop cameras by a wide margin.
Echo: The most dreaded sound of any video call is the terrible sound of feedback and echo that occurs when someone’s mic picks up their speaker sounds and causes a loop of sound that turns into incoherent and painful noise. Worse yet is when this occurs and someone on a call points it out, but nobody is quite sure who is causing the sound problem.
To be clear this is generally not a software issue, it is a setup issue and anyone can cause this problem if they have not set up their video calling equipment properly. The only sure-fire way to prevent the dreaded echo feedback loop is to make it so that your mic cannot pick up the sounds of the video call, and the ideal way to do that is simply to use a pair of headphones.
Even the cheapest of ear buds plugged into the computer can resolve this issue. By pushing the call audio to a set of headphones your laptop or headphones mic will not be able to pickup the sound of other people on the video call to cause the dreaded loop. Simply plug in your headphones and make sure they are receiving sound, and the next time the dreaded feedback loop occurs you can rest easy knowing that you are not the cause. If you do not have headphones readily available for a call you can also simply mute yourself when you are not speaking (see “Etiquette” below for more) but this is not as simple of a solution as you will need to remember to un-mute yourself when you speak, mute again when you are done, and it may still lead to some echo when you are speaking.
Mic: If people are telling you that you are hard to hear or that you sound like a robot at times you will need to look at a few different things to resolve the issue. Firstly, make sure you have a stable and fast internet connection wherever you are, as a bad connection can lead to extra compression or dropped data in a video call that results in strange broken sound, stuttering, and frustrating cut outs of audio (see also “Bad Video Quality” above). You will also want to check your audio levels in whatever software you are using for the video call, as some software lets you increase or decrease your outgoing mic volume and you may be set too low to hear clearly.
If you are still having quality issues with your sound you may need to consider what mic you are using for your audio and try an alternative. If you are following the advice above and using a set of headphones for your calls then your headphones may have a built-in mic that you can try instead of the mic on your laptop or computer. Try switching between your computer and headphone mic in your computer settings to see which gives you better audio, and if you are still unsatisfied with your sound quality you may even want to consider buying an external USB-powered mic which can be placed on your desk in front of you to pick up your voice, and which usually results in much better audio quality.
This is a short and somewhat obvious tip, but one that seems to still be overlooked from time to time. Try to test video call software in advance of important meetings or calls. Different organizations have moved to use different video platforms in the last year, and while most of them share a lot functionality, interface elements, and accessibility, they are still fundamentally different platforms with key differences. If you are being invited to join a meeting with a video call software that you have not used before, it is a very good idea to take the time in advance of the meeting to install the software, set up an account, and make a test call as necessary. Otherwise, you could risk discovering that there is a lengthy install and sign-up process or that your computer hardware is not compatible minutes before a critical meeting, or even joining the meeting to discover that you have no sound or video and no understanding of how to quickly remedy the issue. A test run makes sure that when your meeting happens you can calmly join knowing that everything is ready to go.
Muting: Muting your mic by default and unmuting only when you need to speak to the other parties in a video call has become a commonplace piece of video etiquette in the last year. Not only does this help to prevent interrupting meetings with terrible echo (see above for “Echo” under Audio) but it can also prevent distracting the meeting with background noises that can occur in the home or office, such as dogs barking, the sounds of typing and papers shuffling, or other people talking within earshot. It can also help to keep meetings moving smoothly and to identify someone who intends to speak. When everyone is following this etiquette and you see someone unmute their mic in a meeting it signals that they intend to speak, and you can acknowledge them and give them an opportunity to reply, rather than having them try to cut in to make a point before you continue. The benefits of this etiquette apply for digital video calls, as well as for traditional phone calls and conference calls, and only more so for larger calls with more participants. This practice has seemingly become so universal that if you are not already muting yourself when you are not speaking on calls, you are likely being judged by your colleagues. Now’s the time to make this a habit.
Video ON: This is less often a question for lawyers who are attending virtual court or matter-related meetings that strictly require video presence under the rules and decorum, but for meetings where video is not an automatic requirement the question of “do I have to turn on my camera?” does arise. The general developing rule seems to be that even when it is not mandatory turning on your camera/video is a welcome action to help connect with the other parties on a call, and it is somewhat expected of the person who leads a meeting. It is generally acceptable to not turn on your video if you will not be speaking or participating minimally. Of course, sometimes people have internet issues, a busy background with family running around, simply do not want to turn on their camera, or any number of other valid reasons to keep their camera off. As such, the etiquette that has developed is that if video is not mandatory for a meeting, it is nice to have BUT people should generally not be questioned or pressured to turn on their video if they have left it off. The last year has been tough for many people and circumstances and work from home setups vary from person to person – if some days you or your colleagues just want to sit back in a sweater without video on, that’s okay!
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