Islam m. Ahmad | Wilke Fleury
Remote Depositions in the Post-COVID-19 World
Despite the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in California, many of the changes imposed on the legal industry by the pandemic will likely remain in effect for the foreseeable future. One major change for litigators has been conducting depositions remotely. This change takes an already intricate task and makes it further complex by adding a new dimension of factors to consider. It is imperative that litigators understand these factors to avoid giving their opposition an undue advantage and to maximize the utility of depositions. While we may disagree as to whether remote depositions are a welcome change, the fact of the matter is that lawyers must adapt to them and provide adequate legal representation. This article explores some of the challenges and opportunities presented by remote depositions.
- The Deponent
The deponent is the single most important element of any deposition and handing it properly becomes even more delicate in remote settings. I recently took a deposition where the plaintiff met their attorney for the first time at their deposition. The result was not spectacular. The plaintiff was ill-prepared, and the case eventually settled for far less than what it might have if it had been better prepared.
In some cases, deponents testify remotely without their attorneys’ physical presence. This may make them feel less protected and more vulnerable. To manage this risk, additional preparation is necessary. On the other hand, for attorneys taking depositions, this presents an opportunity to elicit testimony otherwise not possible, especially if a defending attorney is distracted in their home or office during long depositions.
Remote depositions require attorneys to be especially vigilant to safeguard against improper influence. The risk of information being conveyed to the deponent by their attorney or others is increased when the deponent is miles away from the attorneys with unlimited access to technology. Attorneys must be innovative and attentive to manage this risk. Steps that can be taken include having the deponent sit alone in a closed room, viewing a 360-degree angle of the deponent’s room before the deposition, and requesting that the deponent’s hands be in clear view of the camera during the deposition.
The margin for error is even smaller when preparing for remote depositions. Exhibits must be well-prepared, pre-marked, and, in some instances, sent to the other parties in advance. As such, early preparation is not an option. Attorneys must be strategic in determining how and when they share the exhibits with the other parties. During the deposition, attorneys must be able to seamlessly electronically shuffle between exhibits and share them instantly without creating gaps in the record or interrupting the flow of questioning. For that reason, attorneys must be organized, and their questions must be presented with aforethought.
Further, adequate preparation is required to arrange the technological logistics of remote depositions. This includes securing a strong stable internet connection, operational microphones and speakers, and a quiet room with adequate acoustics. Finally, attorneys must be comfortable with using videoconference software, including filters, screen share, and mute functions to avoid unpleasant situations.
- The “Set-Up”
For the attorney taking a remote deposition, it is crucial to arrange it in a manner that ensures command over the proceeding. It is wise to select a court reporter with whom they are comfortable and with whom they have worked in the past. Additionally, it is essential that the court reporter be comfortable working remotely, is familiar with the remote swearing-in process, and is capable of handling electronic documents. Even if all the other parties attend remotely, it is a good idea for the attorney taking the deposition to arrange for the court reporter to be physically present in the same room. This will allow the court reporter to focus on their job and the attorney to maintain command.
In cases where an interpreter is required, an additional layer of complexity is added. It is generally insufficient to have just one connection established with the deponent when an interpreter is utilized. This is because having only one connection means that the interpreter must first listen to the question or answer, write it down, and – only after the person finishes talking – will they be able to interpret. This is a slow, inefficient process. On the other hand, when a second, separate connection is established between the deponent and interpreter, the interpreter will be able to simultaneously translate and relay questions and answers as the parties speak.
There is little doubt that remote depositions are more time-efficient and convenient than in-person depositions. This, combined with the ongoing risk presented by new variants of COVID-19 suggests that remote depositions are likely to remain a key part of litigation practice well into the future. Rather than resist change, attorneys must adapt to this new world and focus on how they can use new technologies for the benefit of their clients, which is the ultimate goal.