The Coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the way we work. Working remotely has become the new normal. An important part of working remotely, is the ability to have virtual meetings and that is where video conferencing comes into the picture. The sudden explosion of video conferencing affects the legal profession, too. Lawyers meet in video chats with their clients as well as with their colleagues. In several countries, notaries are now offering their services online and no longer require parties to be physically present as long as they can join a video conference. And courts, too, have started handling cases where parties and their lawyers are not attending physically, but in video conferences.
There are several advantages to having virtual meetings. Important at present is that by not having to meet in person, one avoids the risk of getting contaminated by anyone attending the meeting who might be infected. But also important is that virtual meetings save a lot of time and reduce costs, since there is no need for transport, etc.
So, what do you need to start video conferencing? First, you need a device with a camera and a microphone. Most smart phones, tablets, and laptops have built-in microphones and cameras that will do the job perfectly. If you are using a desktop computer, however, chances are you will have to acquire a separate microphone and camera to hook up to your computer. Secondly, you need to use video conferencing software. Let us have a closer look at those.
Several packages are on offer. When deciding which one to choose, you will have to consider what your specific needs and desires are. Do you need the ability to share documents or collaborate on them during the meeting? Do you want to be able to share your desktop with other people in the meeting, so you can show them certain items, e.g., do a presentation? How secure is the software? Is the software easy to use and accessible? Will your clients have to install an app? What devices and platforms are supported? What support options are available? Etc.
When it comes to the cost, video conferencing packages come in three varieties: first, there are packages that are free. Then, there are packages that use a Freemium model, where the basic offering is free, and you pay for additional features. And lastly, there are packages that you always must pay for because they don’t offer a free option.
In recent weeks, both Tech Radar Magazine and PC Magazine dedicated articles to the best video conferencing packages available. (Links below). We will give an overview of the seven most popular options and go into a little more detail on Microsoft Teams.
GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). GoToMeeting is a mobile-friendly app that is available in 3 versions, one free and two paying. Meetings are held in a virtual conference rooms, that can also be accessed by a browser via a custom URL. It is easy to use and offers useful apps for enhanced productivity. It is recommended by PC Magazine for small businesses and consumers.
Skype (www.skype.com). Most people are familiar with Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2011. It comes in 3 versions, a free version, a Skype for Business Basic version, and a full Skype for Business version. A copy of the free version is typically preinstalled on Windows 10 computers. If you have a version of Office 365 or Microsoft 365, you should have access to one of the paid versions of Skype. Skype excels in its cross-platform support and offers features like live subtitles and screen sharing. Skype meetings, too, can be accessed in a browser. It has a limit of maximum 50 people attending a meeting.
Google Hangouts (hangouts.google.com). Google Hangouts come in 2 versions, a free version, and a Google Hangouts Meet version, which is part of the G Suite set of applications, and fully integrates with them. It is accessible and simple, and the paying version is designed specifically to meet business needs. It can handle large numbers of participants. Google Hangouts can be accessed in a browser, or via dedicated apps.
Cisco Webex (www.webex.com). Cisco Webex comes in 2 versions, a free version and a paid one, which you may have access to if you are an existing Cisco customer. It is limited in features, but can handle up to 100 participants, with the restriction that only 25 of them can be included in the video stream simultaneously. PC Magazine recommends it for large organizations and existing Cisco customers.
Zoom Meeting (www.zoom.com). Zoom probably is the most popular video conferencing platform at the moment. It comes in a free and a paid version. It is easy to use, offers many features and excellent performance. It is limited to 100 participants. Zoom has been in the news, however, for security and privacy issues. If you plan to use it, some tweaks in the settings are needed to make it more secure. PC magazine calls it the best solution for small businesses and consumers.
Bluejeans (www.bluejeans.com). Bluejeans comes in three different paying versions. It offers an excellent service that includes whiteboards and screen sharing. Unique is its Dolby-powered directional audio experience, where you hear each participant in a separate location. It can be used in a browser, or via dedicated apps for mobile or desktop. PC Magazine calls it the best option for collaboration and shared meetings.
Microsoft Teams (teams.microsoft.com). Microsoft Teams is part of the Microsoft 365 for Business subscriptions. (Until recently, those were called Office 365 for Business). It is highly customizable and offers plenty of features that integrate tightly with other Microsoft 365 applications. It not only comes as a full-fledged desktop app, but there also are mobile versions, and can even be used in a Chromium-based browser, like Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge. Certain features, however, like desktop sharing are only available in the desktop app. It is recommended by PC Magazine for large businesses that operate within the Microsoft environment.
Note that as a law firm, you are probably using Microsoft 365 for Business or Microsoft 365 Premium for Business, which means Microsoft Teams is included in the package. It is not a specific video conferencing tool, but rather a collaboration tool that offers chat and video conferencing functionality. Any of the Microsoft / Office 365 apps can be launched from within the Teams desktop app, making it even easier to share and collaborate with other Team members. You can have multiple teams for multiple projects. It is possible to split the work of a team up in sections and channels, which allows for better project management.
Finally, some additional tips that will improve your video conferencing experience:
- Counterintuitive as it may seem, the audio experience is more important than the visual experience during a video conference. People don’t mind if the video is of slightly lower quality but do mind low audio quality. Make sure you have a decent microphone and loudspeakers.
- Make sure your camera is at eye-height, and make sure you look into the camera when speaking.
- Pay attention to lighting: make sure there is sufficient light, that the light source is facing you and pointed away from the camera. (Do not sit in front of a bright window, e.g., where people only see your silhouette against a brightly lit background).
- When you are attending a meeting with several participants, do not forget that even when you are not speaking, you are on camera, and everybody can see you and your environment.
- If it is not necessary for you to be visible at a given time, consider switching off your camera for that time.
Happy video conferencing!
Addendum 1: on 21 April 2020, Microsoft officially changed the name of Office 365 Personal and Office 365 Home to Microsoft 365 Personal, and Microsoft 365 Family respectively.
Addendum 2: as of May 2020, Google has made Google Hangouts Meet available for free.
Addendum 3: as of 2 June 2020, Microsoft has made a free version of Teams available.