Of all the events that brought the world together this year for a collective feel-good chuckle, one stands out: Zoom cat lawyer.
The 48-second video of a Texas lawyer appearing in a virtual court hearing with his face accidentally obscured by a kitten filter has been seen by an estimated 2 billion-plus people since it was posted in February.
The video was catnip for me as a legal columnist, but its appeal went far beyond the legal community.
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The internet is still awash with Zoom cat lawyer T-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, even baby onesies. There are Zoom cat lawyer Christmas tree ornaments and coffee mugs, a tote bag, an acrylic block, a bobble head and even an action figure.
All feature variations of the wide-eyed, slightly panicked white kitten’s face and the phrase uttered by attorney Rod Ponton as he struggled to figure out how to remove the filter: “I’m here live. I’m not a cat.”
In 2021, we were all Zoom cat lawyer.
I caught up with both Ponton and Judge Roy Ferguson, who originally posted the video on Twitter as a good-natured cautionary tale for navigating virtual hearings amid COVID-19 shutdowns, to ask about their unexpected brush with fame.
Bombarded with media attention from around the world, Ponton told me he made a choice to “get on the wave and surf.”
The attorney for Presidio County, Texas (population 6,975), Ponton (who also has a private general litigation practice) granted interviews and made television appearances on programs including the Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live after the video went viral. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said.
He’s even been stopped on the street and asked for his autograph. “People say, ‘I can’t believe I met the cat lawyer,’” Ponton told me.
Still, he said his turn as a celebrity hasn’t affected his legal practice much – he continues to work as county attorney, as well as staying busy handling local real estate matters.
Nor has he profited from the plethora of Zoom cat lawyer merchandise. “I wish I could,” he said. Although he’s trademarked the kitten image and the phrase “I’m here live. I’m not a cat,” he told me that trying to enforcing IP rights against pop-up overseas apparel and tchotchke makers “would be a full-time job, and I’ve already got a full-time job.”
On the plus side, at least he’s been given some items as gifts. (And hey, who wouldn’t want your own bobblehead, even if your face is a cat?)
By now, Ponton’s explanation of how he became a kitten is an oft-told tale: He was using his assistant’s computer and her young daughter, unbeknownst to all, put the filter in place the night before.
When he logged on via Zoom for a civil forfeiture hearing before Ferguson on Feb. 9 in the 394th Judicial District Court in Brewster County, he appeared as an adorable kitten whose tiny lips moved when Ponton spoke and whose big eyes darted from side to side in alarm.
In part what makes the video so endearing is how the judge responded to the lawyer’s clear distress at his predicament.
Ferguson didn’t laugh at the kitty kounselor, though he told me, “I’m human like everyone else. I certainly recognized the humor in the moment.”
But said he knew that if he cracked up, the other two lawyers logged on for the hearing would too. “My responsibility as a judge is to ensure the dignity and solemnity of the proceedings,” whether virtual or in-person, he said. Laughing was not an option.
Nor did Ferguson berate Ponton for the mishap. The video “would have been much darker if I’d gotten angry or mocked him,” he said. “But I knew this was a senior lawyer doing his best in a very difficult time.”
It helped that he’s known Ponton for 20 years. “It’s a small legal community, I know all the lawyers extremely well,” Ferguson said.
He’s also aware of Ponton’s “strengths and weaknesses, and tech is not a strength,” he said, noting that in prior Zoom hearings, the lawyer struggled with his camera and microphone.
As the kitten mishap unfolded, Ferguson said his focus was simple: Help Ponton solve the problem. In a patient voice reminiscent of everyone’s favorite elementary school teacher, he instructed Ponton where to click to get rid of the filter.
The video cuts off before we see the results, but Ferguson said the filter was quickly removed and the hearing proceeded as planned.
It’s obvious that Ferguson, who is 53, is thoroughly comfortable with technology. He told me he got his first computer, an Apple IIe, for his 12th birthday and has built his own computers over the years.
But many others (myself included)found the pandemic-induced online migration more fraught.
Indeed, Ferguson said he decided to post the clip on Twitter (where at the time he had 1,700 followers) as a gentle warning, tweeting, “If a child used your computer, before you join a virtual hearing check the Zoom Video Options to be sure filters are off.”
Yet he also intended it to be an inspiration, writing that such snafus “are a by-product of the legal profession’s dedication to ensuring that the justice system continues to function in these tough times.”
Even though Ferguson said he never envisioned the clip would go viral, he’s gratified at the reception it’s received – a 99% “like” rate, which is practically unheard-of for such a hugely popular video.
“My goal with social media is for it to be uplifting, fun and educational, and this fit perfectly,” he said. “The world needed a smile.”
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