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'You're on Mute'

Miami litigator Jeffrey Bast on the good, bad and ugly of video conferencing

Published in 2022 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

Last week, a few of us joined a video conference about a critical client matter. The lead lawyer wasted no time. He started speaking right away. He was focused, animated and thoughtful. He was also on mute. The rest of us did not know that he also had his volume off. “You’re on mute,” we all tried. He kept going. We started putting our hands up, waving furiously. Still going. Finally, someone called his cell. Still going, until he finally looked down at his phone, and though we had no sound, we could make out his sheepish response: “Oh.” 

For the last two years, just about every one of my calls has been a video conference. And nearly every one started with: “You’re on mute.” That was often followed by an uncomfortably long pause as the speaker struggled to find the mute button. 

I am amazed at how many are still not aware that mute is their default setting. But I have to think mute default is a good thing. I can only imagine how many more bloopers we would have encountered as private conversations continued. I have set my defaults to muted microphone and camera off. I want to enter the room discreetly and show myself only after I survey the scene. I almost always turn my camera on, though, and I encourage others to turn theirs on. The initial reluctance is typically driven by misplaced fears—I am too casually dressed or my background is messy, boring, cluttered, has kids, has pets. Please hear this: We are not bothered by your ragged Van Halen T-shirt or your kids fighting for the last cookie behind you, or the laundry hanging on your treadmill! If this pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that it’s OK to be human and have a life that might be a little messy outside of work. 

Having said that, good camera awareness cannot be overstated. We have all heard about the naked guy who rose from bed when his lawyer girlfriend stepped away before her virtual hearing started. I love stories like that, but it’s not why I am a fan of video conferencing. I just think it’s better than the phone and far better than email. I much prefer to see the person I am speaking with. So much of our communication is non-verbal. Though we may not be able to see arms crossing or bodies leaning, we can see facial expressions. I can also tell when someone is distracted by another call, person, pet, Amazon delivery, etc. I can tell when I am getting through or, more importantly, when I am not getting through. 

One thing I do not like is seeing myself during a conversation. Never before in the history of conversations have we seen ourselves while speaking, unless you happen to be a barber or spend a lot of time chatting in the bathroom. It’s not to say that I don’t like seeing myself. I know I’m pretty. (There’s another reason I like video—easier to make a joke that, in writing, falls flat.) But I would rather focus on the other speaker. So I almost always keep mine in speaker view. And for you lawyers out there, pin the judge. That’s who you need to see. 

I am grateful that video conferencing gave us this opportunity to look each other in the virtual eyes. But I am thrilled to be doing that more in person and look forward to seeing more eyes and faces in person. Until then, don’t forget: “You’re on mute.”

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