Lawyers and Judge Handle Zoom CATastrophe PURRfectly

A cat may have nine lives…but a video of a lawyer appearing as a cat at a virtual court hearing is trending towards nine million views. 

If you’re not already fur-miliar with what happened, here’s a quick hiss-tory of the Zoom Cat-astrophe. Rod Ponton, a county attorney in Texas logged into a Zoom hearing on his secretary’s computer and was unable to remove the cat filter.  Though flustered, Ponton declined to request an offscreen  “paws,” and gamely declared that he was prepared to go fur-ward — though clarifying that ‘I am not a cat.”

What followed was a show of professionalism generally unseen in most courtrooms with all parties responding in a purr-fectly appropriate manner. The two other counsel participating remained catotonic, not batting an eye as Ponton struggled.  Meanwhile, Presiding Judge Roy Ferguson didn’t berate Mr. Ponton for lack of technologic litter-acy or grouse about being forced to use technology in the courtroom. And while the judge posted a link to the video online, he did so not as an act of feline humiliation, but instead, as a cautionary tale to enlighten other lawyers. 

Meanwhile, Ponton has adopted the right cat-itude towards this hiss-terical event.  He hasn’t tried to pussyfoot around his mishap, claw-mored for a takedown or non-dis-claw-sure of the video or threatened a lawsuit. Instead, Ponton has pounced on the opportunity to share his experience more broadly through television interviews where he explained what happened without blaming his assistant or lion about what happened.

Shockingly, other lawyers have also taken the tale in stride. Though incidents like this are frequently catnip for self-righteous legal futurists; an opportunity to say “I told you so” or lobby for more states to adopt a duty of technical competence, most commenters have been sympathetic. After all, by now, we recognize that on any given day, we all could have been that cat. (indeed, at the outset of the pandemic, I had an even worse mishap of my own where a remote lawyer get together that I’d hastily organized without password protection was infiltrated by an troll who scribbled doodles of male genitalia across the screen before I could regain control).  And while the pandemic no doubt has made many of us short-tempered and weary, it’s also gifted each of us some capacity to show a  little bit of grace.   

As for takeaways, they’re the same commonsense best practices we’re all familiar with:

  • Avoid sharing, or allowing staff to share a work computer with family members or use it for personal reasons;
  • Just as you wouldn’t race into a courtroom seconds before a case is called, don’t log into a Zoom hearing on the fly – take the time to test your equipment and do a background check (for example, is your dildo on display onscreen?);
  • If something goes wrong, be a cool cat and stay calm. It’s not just the people present, but the entire Internet who might witness your outburst;
  • If all else fails and you can’t fix a tech flub (which has happened to me many times – computer displays that wouldn’t work in the courthouse or being blocked from bringing my ipad with all my notes into a Second Circuit argument), be prepared to go forward as best you can.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that lawyers old and young need to make peace with technology because we have no other choice.  We don’t need to revere it (as I do), but at least recognize that it is a necessary evil that we can’t shed. There’s no going back — “we’ve thrown away our choice, we’ve lost our ticket so we have to stay on.”  2021 is truly the Year of the Cat.

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