Zoom: doom, gloom or boon?

Zoom (other brand names may apply) has come to dominate many of our lives during the Covid disruption. Many organisations and businesses are now grappling with the difficult issue of the future optimum mix between the virtual and the real in their internal organisation. The delivery of legal services raises much the same issues. Video can be a boon in reaching audiences otherwise not showing up at physical locations. But it does depend on viewers’ access to technology and a capacity to use it. So, obviously it will not be suitable for all audiences. What could its future use be in legal outreach? And, more interesting than any binary of taking of sides on whether it can be used, what are the lessons of those who are actually using zoom for legal outreach?

The world leader in zoom outreach seems to be the People’s Law School of British Columbia, the subject of an earlier article. The School has now produced its annual report detailing activity over the last year and also put on the net a recording of their latest session earlier this month on making a will. 

The annual report is worth a read by anyone interested in public legal education – and, indeed, the visual presentation of information. The report is really well thought and laid out. The organisation presents itself as having a coherent mission: ‘a British Columbia where people have the knowledge, skills and confidence to resolve everyday legal matters’. It reports on 11 webinars that were held over the Covid period in 2020-21 with an attendance of 5,882 and a rate of 98 per cent on attendees who would recommend a webinar to others. And, clearly no little thought has gone into webinars that engage. As the School boasts, ‘You won’t get boring talking heads and long power point presentations from People’s Law. Expect a conversation where you can actively participate.’

Its webinars, boasts the School, are:

  • Dynamic – submit questions and get answers in real time;
  • Interactive – our webinars are friendly, approachable and lively;
  • On Demand – you can replay a webinar any time from our website.

The recordings of past webinars allow you to check performance against claim. And, if you are interested in zoom legal outreach, you should listen to one of them – the latest on wills seems pretty typical. The distinctive elements include:

  • three speakers to provide variety;
  • presentation as ‘a Q and A’ based on questions submitted by the audience;
  • organisation into manageable segments of a few minutes each;
  • strong control of discussion – in this cases by Paula Price, the School’s lead on webinars;
  • a structure based on specific questions rather than general articulation of principle;
  • visual confirmation of the question being discussed. 

Presentation is really important. Ask me to talk about making a will and, lawyer that I am, I would begin by explaining what a will is and what it does. The first question at the webinar was, however, direct and specific: ‘At what age or life stage do you recommend creating your first will?’ and then we were on to the highly practical ‘What happens to my property if I don’t make a will’. So, the session was structured to move from very specific questions. Within the hour, there was time to explore some detail. Discussion of ‘How often should I update my will?’ raised some personal issues for me and that on the advisability of regularly renewing any provisions in a will appointing guardians for children some guilt for past failures (happily theoretical – my two children are both now in the 40s and confronting these tricky issues on their own account. Rather than regretting past inaction, I should probably concentrate on articulating my wishes for end of life care – a topic also raised.)

And the conclusion? Video can be used for outreach to some audiences. But you can’t just plug and play the conventional 45 minute talk and subsequent questions. That chimes with the experience many of us have had of online conferences as well. Video demands adaptation of presentation. You can’t just  stick a camera in front of a succession of speakers and hope that the viewers will do the work of making the connections and identifying the themes. It would be good to collect other examples of zoom use for legal outreach. Got any? Send them in.

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