More Reliable, Improved Screen Sharing, Enhanced Video Quality: Why the Courts Are Moving to Microsoft Teams

By Brandon Vogel

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New York’s Unified Court System is transitioning to Microsoft Teams in place of Skype for Business.

General deployment is happening through November within each Judicial District. Skype for Business will continue to be available during this period, but it will be phased out entirely by December 31.

Microsoft Teams is an easy to use communication and collaboration platform that the courts will use, which currently allows up to 300 people to participate in an online meeting. The New York Unified Court System has a Microsoft enterprise licensing agreement that includes Teams and the entire court system will use Teams.

Nearly 800 attorneys attended today’s webinar, “New Platform To Communicate With The Courts: Microsoft Teams!” A second program is scheduled for Friday, October 16.

“It’s a better product,” said Valerie Buzzell, principal local area network (LAN) Administrator, 9th Judicial District Technology Department. “We have been testing Teams for some time and Teams delivers a more reliable experience for online meetings.”

Buzzell added that Teams offers the same functionality of Skype for Business with a range of new and improved features.

For example, Teams includes the ability to share your desktop and include system audio seamlessly, whereas Skype required external speakers and microphones to share any evidence.

“The process could be a little complicated,” said Buzzell.

The National Center for State Courts met in April and recommended features for virtual hearing platforms.

“Teams ticks most of the boxes they recommended,” said Buzzell.

Although some capabilities are not available yet, some are coming soon, including enhanced video quality. Teams currently allows for nine video feeds but is expanding to 49 feeds this fall.

Buzzell emphasized that it is appropriate to use for confidential information and proceedings, unlike some competitors. It includes built-in security controls, communication is encrypted end-to-end, and is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant. It also runs in the Microsoft Government cloud, with servers entirely based in the United States.

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions from lawyers.

Do I need to have a Microsoft Teams account to participate?
You do not need your own Teams license or sign-in to participate.

What do I need to participate?
A computer with internet access and a webcam and/or a microphone (built-in or USB headset); or you can also use your smartphone.

What if I am on an Apple device?
You can download the free Microsoft Teams app when prompted from the meeting link. As long as you have the app, it doesn’t matter if you are on a Mac and the court is on Windows.

Do I need to do anything for my current Windows computer?
There are hardware requirements (https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/microsoftteams/hardware-requirements-for-the-teams-app­) but most computers should work. However, it is recommended that you have Windows 10 installed.

Does Teams work on my virtual private network (VPN)?
Yes, but Teams works best when not connected to a VPN.

Can I dial in instead?
It depends on how the clerk set up the meeting. Contact the clerk to see if a phone number and pin is available.

How will I be notified of a virtual appearance?
The court staff will mail or e-mail you an invite, which they will always initiate. The timing of invites also varies; you may get a notice shortly before an emergency matter.

Can I set up a test run with the courts?
Yes, the courts are amenable to practice sessions.

Does Teams work better in a particular web browser?
Although Edge and Chrome will work, use the Desktop app for optimal use. Download it in advance of your meeting. Restart your computer before your hearing. Try to avoid using a Chromebook.

When I join a Team meeting as a guest, the app asks me to enter a name. What should I enter?
It is recommended to enter your full name with your role (John Doe, attorney for the child; Jane Smith, attorney for plaintiff). At-risk witnesses should be protected as much as possible.

Is there a waiting room feature like in Zoom?
In Teams, it’s called a lobby. In a virtual court hearing, you wait in the “lobby” until the judge is ready to hear your case.

Are there breakout rooms like in Zoom?
Breakout rooms are coming in late fall.

How do I present material?
First, speak to the judge or clerk about their procedure for presenting materials. From there, you may need to be given presenter rights to share your screen or files. Attendees can only speak and share video, participate in meeting chats, and privately view a PowerPoint shared by the organizer or presenter.

What about recording?
The courts continue to use court reporters and other audio recording software currently in place for arraignments, hearings and at the judge’s discretion.

When there is a preliminary felony hearing and a witness is testifying virtually, the witness portion of the proceeding will be recorded in Teams and provided through the Electronic Document Delivery System.  Recording, broadcasting or streaming of the proceedings is not permitted.

Will Teams be used for filing documents?
No. Attorneys must use the filing methods in place for delivering papers to the court, such as NYSCEF or the Electronic Document Delivery System.

Can I invite other parties to Teams meeting?
Assuming they should be included and with permission of the court, you can forward the meeting invite or copy and paste the link. You can also invite more participants if the meeting has already started.

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