A Working Parent’s Case for Zoom Trials
The image above of Gordon & Rees partners Marie Holvick and Amber Eklof celebrating a jury verdict for their client, the Regents for the University of California, last month veers from the typical post-trial victory photo in a few ways. But let’s start with the obvious one: That’s Holvick’s 17-month-old twins joining in the celebration.
Nothing says “we won” like a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich, right?
Add post-trial snuggles to the list of unexpected benefits from remote jury practice. For seven weeks that stretched across Thanksgiving and right up until the week before Christmas, Holvick and Eklof defended the university during a remote Zoom trial in Alameda Superior Court. The plaintiff, a former UC Berkeley professor who had been fired after four separate students had accused him of sexual harassment, claimed he’d been discriminated against because of a disability. The jury sided with the school on the disability claim as well as counter-claims relating to administrative settlements the school paid out to the four students, but declined to award the school any money.
With trial running from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each day, Holvick said her husband, an in-house lawyer at a healthcare company, had been pulling extra duty with the twins and their soon-to-be four-year-old sibling at home. But not being a litigator, her husband didn’t realize what the days following the Dec. 20 closing argument would entail, and he had lined up some in-person meetings. With the twins’ childcare provider closed for the holidays and a babysitter unavailable, Holvick consulted with Eklof and another partner who encouraged her to bring the girls into the office.
When the verdict came in early in the afternoon of Dec. 22, a partner got the twins sandwiches from a grilled cheese place around the corner from the firm’s San Francisco office and sat with them in Holvick’s office, while she went to the conference room for about an hour as the verdict was read. “The girls are just holding sandwiches hanging out … with their blocks and other toys having just a good old time messing up my office,” said Holvick, who took on the role of office managing partner in June. “It's never ideal having to bring your kids to work, but the fact that I can do that I think ... it speaks volumes for what our office is like.”
Eklof said it also made the post-verdict celebration unique, complete with “little person hugs.”
“It was nice to be able to go and share that moment with our partners … and with those little ones who were just elated to see you and then even more excited that you're excited,” she said.
As remote jury trials have receded elsewhere, they’re still the default in civil cases in state court in Alameda County, the home of Oakland on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Holvick, for one, believes they’re a “game-changer” both for attorneys and witnesses. All the witnesses testified remotely, including professors abroad on sabbatical, former students who have moved to other states, and a key witness who had her newborn beside her as she testified from her living room.
“Just her ability to even participate in the case was changed by the fact that this was via Zoom,” Holvick said.
Holvick added that the remote nature of the trial made it easier for her to juggle her home and work life. “From the attorney's perspective, it was really fantastic not lugging huge binders full of exhibits every day and driving to court and going through security,” she said. “That whole process is really time-consuming.”
“Instead of using that time for travel, that really wasn't necessary, I used it to prep witnesses and get ready for the day,” she said. “Using Zoom even as we come out of the pandemic is really a game changer for working parents.”
Eklof, for her part, said preparing the case for trial multiple times because of pandemic-related delays at times felt like “sprinting a marathon.” But she added that she was impressed with jurors’ ability to focus and follow evidence for seven weeks and with the court clerk’s ability to keep things rolling through minor technical glitches. “I think that after almost three years of this, everybody can attest to the fact that it is difficult to be on Zoom all day to efficiently perform your job,” she said. “So I do commend them for being able to sit through it and take in all the evidence and to be able to effectively evaluate this case.”
“They paid attention the whole time. You could see if you put a document on the screen, they kind of leaned forward. You could tell they were reading,” she said.