Legal Veteran Asks: Is Virtual Here to Stay?

Oct 14, 2020

SOUTHFIELD, MI – Plenty of uncomplicated legal matters are being settled virtually these days. The arrangements are a concession to the global pandemic, and Frederick F. Butters, a private practice attorney in Southfield, Mich., is surprised that it’s working so well.

There was a lot of pushback at first, but once the virtual meetings started, benefits began to crop up. Butters uses the example of routine hearings, so common in the area of construction law.

“If you have a meeting at 8:45, the judge comes on via Zoom and he’s in chambers, and you’re done in five minutes,” Butters says. “The order is written and submitted, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, if I had to go to court, that hearing would be an hour and a half to get there, go through security, wait until I’m called, and it could be three hours to get through the process. I’m looking at five hours total, but virtually I’m done in 20 minutes.”

Frederick F. Butters

Third Thursday sat down with Butters, a past CSC speaker who specializes in legal services for design and construction professionals, to learn more about the virtual work flow and what may end up continuing long after the global pandemic.

Third Thursday: When pandemic-related procedures relax, will you go back to the old ways?
Butters: Even though the restrictions have loosened a little bit, you know, we’re finding virtual hearings to be very effective and very efficient. For our routine stuff, at least for the first seeable future, we’re not going to return to in-person, even though we’re allowed to.

In March, we didn’t know if it would work. We were all kind of looking sideways at it, but now something has changed. We know it will work. Maybe it’s not quite the same, but it will work. Not only will it work, but it will save a lot of time and a lot of money.

I’m thinking even when we get to a point where we can go back to the way things were, I don’t think we’re going to. We were forced to limit face-to-face interaction, and now that we were forced to do it we realize it’s not really that bad. In fact, it’s got a lot of positives.

Third Thursday: What will happen in person?
Butters: If we’re going to have a contested motion on a dismissal, we’re probably still going to do that in person.

Third Thursday: How do judges feel about virtual meetings?  
Butters: I think even judges are saying, ‘I can do a whole lot of things a whole lot easier because I can do them right here in my Chambers.’ But in March nobody wanted to go virtual because nobody’s ever really done it. But now that we’ve done it, we know it works. We also know a few other things: it’s faster; it’s more efficient; and it’s more economical. I just I don’t see it going back.

Third Thursday: How do you think clients are feeling?
Butters: I bet my clients feel the same way. Am I going to charge them three hours for a half hour meeting? No. I’ll charge a half hour for that half hour meeting, because we have it while you’re sitting right there at your desk.

Third Thursday: You think that could lead to lawyers making less money? Heaven forbid.
Butters: Well, it will increase efficiency, but there are ways it will balance out. I don’t know that it’ll cause lawyers to make less money. What I think it will do is result in lower bills for particular clients. It should do that. You know, if I’m not spending five hours messing around with journaling of a discovery date, and I’m only spending 20 minutes doing that, I can spend the four and a half hours doing something else.

Third Thursday: Do you ever envision an actual trial happening online?
Butters: Well that’s going to be a little difficult for a jury trial. I will say as an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association, I just finished one up where the parties were reluctant to do a face-to-face hearing. It was an older gentleman with comorbidity factors, and he did not want to be around people. The American Arbitration Association notably just finished promulgating their guidelines for online hearings, and I actually conducted that hearing by Zoom, and it worked okay.

Third Thursday: Do you lose a negotiating advantage when you’re online?
Butters: Well, if you look at Zoom, you’re looking at the person, but it probably does impair [negotiation] to a degree. I’m also deciding about who I’m going to believe, and part of that is nonverbal to be sure—but I find that a chunk of that is still there. It’s hard to quantify, but as long as you can see the person, you can still make a lot of those determinations. If it’s a phone conference instead of a video hookup, that would be different. Then you would lose that completely, but we’re doing it with Zoom, or some of these other platforms, and you’re still looking at the person on the screen.