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57 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Digital Frontier: Technology, Roadblocks & Creative Solutions

In this episode, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez. They discuss pushing cases during COVID-19, educating the defense and clients on Zoom, the increased need for technology in law firms, finding creative solutions, the effect of the pandemic on jury attitudes, and strategies to safely return to the office.

The discussion begins on the topic of pushing cases and overcoming defense delay tactics during COVID-19. Sonia emphasizes the need to continue to move cases, even if you’re met with objections from the defense, saying “The wheels of justice don’t come to a complete halt.” Sonia suggests offering a clear, transparent proposal for technology to the defense prior to depositions. Fellow Cowen Rodriguez Peacock attorney Jacob Leibowitz has created guides for Zoom for Depositions and Zoom for Mediations which have been helpful in easing uncertainty surrounding this new technology. Michael has also found success in offering practice sessions to the defense counsel, noting that this works well when people are acting in good faith.

Unfortunately, not all defense attorneys are acting in good faith with their objections to this technology and will try to drag the case out. In these situations, Sonia encourages attorneys to file a Motion to Compel Deposition. She has found success in this because courts in Texas have been utilizing the technology themselves. This makes it hard for defense attorneys to suggest depositions by Zoom aren’t appropriate when the hearing may very likely be held by Zoom. Sonia and Michael agree that it’s in every firm’s best interest to keep their cases moving during COVID-19 and to find creative solutions to problems which may arise.

The conversation shifts to a discussion of preparing clients for Zoom depositions. Sonia insists the process isn’t much different, other than a loss of “relationship feel” between the client and the attorney during deposition prep. The important factor in this is ensuring you create a comfort level for your client that makes them feel prepared.

Sonia and Michael agree the biggest roadblock they’ve faced regarding client preparation is a lack of available technology for the client. Many clients do not have a laptop, Wi-Fi, or a room where they can sit privately and quietly for a 3-4-hour deposition. Their firm has mitigated this issue by sending tablets to clients who need them and emphasizing technology training during deposition prep. They note that this strategy does not always work, and some depositions will inevitably need to be delayed until we can meet in person again. The underlying goal is to keep 95% of your cases moving.

Michael and Sonia move the conversation to the overall increased level of understanding regarding video conferencing technology like Zoom. Sonia describes her experience with sharing exhibits through Zoom, and her trial and error of doing so. She’s noticed how advanced the knowledge of this technology is for many court reporters and mediators and has learned through their advice as well. She then shares a story of when she served a witness with a Zoom deposition subpoena. She expected a lengthy process of explaining the technology to the witness, who shockingly replied that she was well-versed in Zoom through her children’s virtual school courses. Michael notes that he doesn’t know how enforceable a Zoom deposition subpoena would be, but again emphasizes the goal to move 95% of cases and save the rest for when we return to normal. Sonia echoes this by explaining the duty we have to our clients to move cases and represent them earnestly. While we cannot guarantee their trial date will go through, we can guarantee we are continuing to work on their case.

Michael makes the point that we all only have a given amount of energy to spend in the day. While it’s easy to get caught up in things outside of your control, it’s crucial to not let this suck up your energy. He emphasizes the importance of spending your energy on what you can control right now- moving your cases. Sonia agrees and adds that as trial lawyers, we are wired to be creative and tackle the unexpected in our cases and in the courtroom. She shares a brilliant example of this comparing today’s landscape with an elmo projector.

There has been much speculation around how COVID-19 will affect jurors’ perceptions in the long run. In Sonia’s opinion, this will depend on the economic situation once juries come back. If people have been out of work and cannot afford to be there because of their economic situation, this will not be good for the plaintiff’s side. She believes if the economy can stabilize, jurors may feel a heightened sense of civic duty and comradery around rallying on a jury. Michael has hesitations about trying a case where the jurors feel endangered by being present, but has a positive outlook on the long term effects, stating “Americans have an incredibly short memory.” He notes the worries of juror perception after events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse, which had no long-term negative effect.

Sonia and Michael conclude with a discussion of how and when firms will begin to gather in a physical office space again. Sonia says our top priority needs to be to keep our clients and our families safe. Michael shares his hesitation to open too quickly by saying, “We sue companies for putting profits above people” and we should hold ourselves to this same standard.

This episode also covers ethical concerns with virtual depositions, when to provide hard copies of exhibits in virtual depositions, bench trials via Zoom, overcoming technical issues, and much more.

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