OCBA President's Page
The One About Our Transition to the Future …
by Kaveh Kashef, 2021-22 OCBA President
I was a Friends guy. I can remember watching the first episode in the fall of 1994 during my senior year at the University of Michigan. Friends and ER premiered within days of one another, and I was hooked on both (watching ER became the surrogate to my cashed-in dreams of medical school). By then, Seinfeld had already established itself as a comedic juggernaut, but I remember fandoms drawing lines between the two shows, and I was squarely in the Friends camp, perhaps because of the demographic the characters represented and the aimlessness of their professional plans. What people probably did not realize was that every episode of the show’s 236-episode run started with the words “The One …” (other than “The First One” and “The Last One”). Perhaps as much an homage to my Gen X roots and proclivities, my articles this year will steal from the naming convention established by one of my favorite shows.
It is not uncommon for the first article of the incoming president of the Oakland County Bar Association to include the incoming president’s vision or goals for the upcoming year. However, in this regard, my vision (retrospective and prospective) has no greater relevance than the vision of the nearly 3,000 members of our association. This year, as much as any in the OCBA’s 87-year history, we are at a point in time where the practice of law will take deep strides toward an evolutionary change. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the mutation of the practice and, therefore, gets most of the credit (or blame), but it has a significant companion factor. We are going to develop the future of the OCBA together.
In this case, the changes we have experienced have been birthed through the confluence of the impact of COVID-19 and the development of new technology. The videoconferencing platforms we have lived by for the last 18 months have been around for much longer than people realize, but by 2019, only a small group of practitioners had heard of “Zoom,” “BlueJeans,” or “Microsoft Teams” (among many others). Fewer had used them with any regularity. In the courthouse and in the practice of law, the preferred mode of connecting people from distances was the “conference call” and its ubiquitous multi-digit phone number/conference code/password system. The system worked but had its limits in terms of the number of users who could join at a single time; in addition, dialing in could cause accidents, and conference calls frequently resulted in someone saying, “Who just said that?” By March 2020, videoconferencing was an interesting, useful, but not truly tested means of social and business engagement.
However, when COVID-19 spread across the country (along with its resultant state and local orders and directives to “shelter in place”), like a first-round rookie big-league pitcher, videoconferencing was thrown into the game, handed the ball, and told, “You need to win this game.” While a slight overstatement and not a perfect metaphor, the proliferation of videoconferencing from 2020 to 2021 has been analogous to the transition from radio to television in the 1950s: Audio, alone, is being replaced by audio and visual.
Through the spring of 2020, the bench, its staffs, and the various administrators of the Oakland County Circuit Court had to implement an infrastructure, protocols, and procedures to allow for the effective administration of justice. After a slight slowdown (I recall playing catch with my son in the middle of the day for a few weeks in late March and early April), motions started to be heard, and by the summer, things were back to “normal.” After about a month, things started to pick up at an accelerated pace.
Depositions took a parallel track to motions. Based on a perhaps arcane belief that lawyers can “read” their witnesses when they are in the room with them, depositions were effectively put on hold in anticipation for when in-person depositions would begin again. However, spring transitioned to summer and then fall with continued restrictions on in in-person gatherings. As a result, while judges were liberally and appropriately granting extensions of deadlines, practitioners had no choice but to start taking depositions by videoconference. Lawyers first took just the “easy” depositions with just a handful of exhibits, but they eventually removed the training wheels, and the all-day depositions are now regularly taken by videoconference. Unquestionably, the “Zoom mediation” became an opportunity for lawyers and the court to efficiently manage their dockets.
In short, as a population and as lawyers, we have adapted, and the practice of law has become almost completely virtual. The question is, as the COVID-19 restrictions lift, do we go back to the way things were? Probably not completely. The efficiencies and conveniences are simply too great. No longer are litigants and lawyers waiting in the courtroom, and travel time is all but eliminated, resulting in massive cost savings to clients and efficiency for lawyers. The impact of travel and weather has been effectively eliminated. For these and several other reasons, we can expect that the virtual practice of law is here to stay.
Of course, the process has not been perfect. Zoom videoconferencing can lead to user errors among lawyers and certainly among pro se litigants. Wi-Fi connectivity issues exist. Security issues (“Who is in the room with you?”) exist. The court’s enforcement of courtroom decorum is limited as the parties are not present in the courtroom. Zoom jury trials have been limited (but are expected to ramp up quickly this summer), and we can certainly expect to hear a few potential jurors “pulling the COVID-19 card” (good luck with that). Perhaps most importantly, technology has reduced our personal interactions with one another, and it is in combating this consequence of technology that the OCBA has earned and will continue to earn its annual membership fee.
In the past year, through the guidance of our immediate past president, Keefe Brooks, and the tireless efforts of the administrative staff, the OCBA has embraced technology in the delivery of services and value to its membership. OCBA committees have been great opportunities to connect membership and have continued to meet virtually and have addressed legally driven and transcendent issues such as the virtual courtroom and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Business Court and Counsel and Diversity and Inclusion committees, led by their respective co-chairs, Joseph Doerr, Jonathan Frank, and Kaitlin Brown, were recognized as the OCBA’s committees of the year for 2020-21. The OCBA has continued to assist in the economical administration of District Court cases through District Court Case Evaluation. The New Lawyers Committee continues to provide an opportunity for new lawyers to interact with one another.
Of course, embedded in each of these benefits is the opportunity for personal interaction and the building of relationships — the OCBA’s events. Although there were too many uncertainties when we scheduled this year’s annual meeting to conduct the entire event in person, the OCBA hosted its first in-person event in over a year with the 2020-21 awards ceremony. Lawyers and judges talked with one another about everything from the impact of COVID-19 on the practice of law to binge-watching shows such as Tiger King (massively overrated) and Cobra Kai (amazing). The event was a microcosm of what the OCBA represents to me: learning, unity, friendship, discourse, and building relationships.
Slowly, at first, and now quickly, people are becoming reengaged with one another and experiencing things we may have taken for granted pre-COVID. Together, 2021-22 should be the year that the OCBA goes from virtual to in-person reengagement, and I look forward to being there with all of you.