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The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary add new words every year based on the words that had been so popularly used in the preceding year to be deemed worthy of inclusion into the respected annals of English language. Undoubtedly, if they were to look for such a word in the COVID-19 era, they would need to look no further than ‘Webinar’.
At the beginning of the lockdown brought on by the pandemic, one had been reminded of the last such pandemic at the time of the outbreak of bubonic plague in the 1600s and had been given the example of Sir Issac Newton by many a well meaning friend, columnist or social media influencer. Newton had famously used the time spent in isolation/quarantine during the outbreak of plague to develop Calculus, amongst others. While I am no closer to developing a new field of mathematics, my knowledge of law stands greatly enlarged by the tsunami of webinars that were unleashed upon us.
What started as a trickle soon became a flood. A new concept to most of us initially, it was met early on with a little skepticism mixed with curiosity, and was embarked upon only by the more tech savvy amongst our judges and senior advocates. Curiosity won and it soon found a large captive audience in most of us stuck at home without access to our files and cases, and looking for a more productive use of our time than Netflix.
Next came the acclaim and the clamour for more webinars and they became the new benchmark, not only to ascertain that one has been found deserving enough to be bestowed with the task of disseminating knowledge, but also as a measure to gauge one’s popularity, with the number of attendees in a webinar being the yardstick to ascertain how one stood with the adoring (or not so adoring) masses.
While the speakers were the showpieces or the main event so to say, the moderators also basked in the reflected glory and it became a matter of great prestige for an up and coming lawyer to be featured as a moderator on these webinars. The content was good, the topics well-researched and it provided us the opportunity to be taught by the masters of the game. Not only that, many an enterprising lawyer would log in for a webinar by a judge, before whom he/she might have a matter, to hopefully gain insights as to the direction the wind was blowing.
For the more cheeky and brave amongst us, it provided an opportunity to corner the speakers with a question that was specific to the facts of the very said matter. Links for webinars were prized and bestowed amongst us lesser mortals by those of us more in the know and recordings of the webinars were much sought after.
Next came the stage of democratization – webinars no longer remained the bastion of the elite few – nay, now they became a tool for emancipation and promotion of the masses. Lawyers, both young and old, held fort on topics as varied as their professed area of expertise to e-filing procedures and court craft. Memorably, we had a law portal holding a webinar imparting dating advice to us (at least those amongst us with an XY Chromosome!) and essentially giving us a dummy’s guide on what not to webinar on.
Democratization was not limited to the speakers alone, it enveloped in its all encompassing reach, the moderators as well and it was not out of place to see webinars moderated by legal interns. Everyone and their aunt wanted a piece of the action, from law firms, to law colleges and their student bodies to associations with fancy acronyms and law portals.
Webinars introduced us to the vast array of online platforms for hosting meetings – be it the popular but controversial Zoom, the enterprising Cisco Webex, the slightly high brow GotoWebinar and for the Webinar aficionado, the Blue Jeans platform. Webinar accounts for these platforms being expensive, the institutions/firms having the said platforms suddenly found themselves immensely popular with many an enterprising friend/acquaintance wanting to borrow their platforms to host a Webinar and collaborations soon became the order of the day. As webinars became more common, these platforms gave way to more affordable streaming options like Facebook live or Instagram live in addition to good old Youtube, thus ensuring that the democratization is indeed complete.
Alas, the honeymoon period never lasts (or so they say), and when the supply exceeds demand, adulation is replaced with indifference. The dwindling viewer numbers and silence on WhatsApp groups that now greeted the announcement of an upcoming webinar was an indication that it was a concept, which though still relevant, needed some reinvention.
The writing on the wall, however, became clear when it became the stuff of memes with ‘death by webinar’ becoming as popular a forward on WhatsApp groups as the links of the webinars once used to be. Webinars as a concept still survive and there are new ones organized with alarming regularity, but the charm appears to have worn off.
However, webinars as a medium to disseminate knowledge on a wide array of topics, and to reach audiences that physical limitations would otherwise not allow, still continue to be powerful tools in the field of legal education. The concept is indeed here to stay and with a renewed focus on the quality of content, choice of content and choice of speakers, the same can continue to be a vital and crucial part of the shift to the virtual world that now encompasses everything from online hearings and filings.
Whatever the future holds for us and for webinars in the Un-lockdown phase, one does owe the webinars a great debt. They allowed a lawyer sitting in Delhi to be taught the principles of evidence by a Judge of a High Court situated several thousands of miles away. They allowed the practitioner of civil law to have the briefest of glimpses into the hitherto alien world of paroles and furloughs. They made the introduction of new online filing mechanisms and standard operating procedures smoother. They gave one an opportunity to learn how to cook stuffed tomatoes Sicilian style by leading arbitration professionals as they shared insights of their arbitration experience!
They allowed one to sneakily peek into the lives of the hundreds of other attendees who hadn’t been smart enough to put their video off and were caught in the middle of getting head massages no less caught in all states of dress (and undress!). So while I did not develop a new field of mathematics or law in the lockdown, the webinars ensured, in no small part, that I stayed mentally stimulated, engaged, amused and most importantly sane.
Disclaimer: The author is guilty of having moderated a webinar or two but the views expressed herein are largely unbiased by the said experiences 😊!