So far, the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 epidemic has been challenging — but not daunting — for Florida’s 100,000-plus legal community and the clients they’re sworn to protect.
Interviews with individual attorneys, Florida Bar leaders, and Bar staff, suggest that most lawyers are adjusting to the new reality by closing offices, working from home, and relying heavily on technology.
Florida Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert said questions coming into the Bar’s Ethics Hotline have changed little since the epidemic forced Gov. Ron DeSantis to declare a state of emergency.
“Lawyers are obviously concerned for their clients, staff, and families, but the questions are normal questions about cases,” Tarbert said.
One of the biggest concerns, especially for sole and small-firm practitioners, who make up 60% of Bar membership, is an economic downturn and potentially looming recession.
With the U.S. economy ground to a halt and millions of businesses closed, unemployment is skyrocketing. Congress is about to shower the country with $2.2 trillion in stimulus, everything from airline bailouts and small-business incentives, to a $1,200 check for individual taxpayers.
“To me, the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of everything,” said Tampa attorney Paige Greenlee. “How long are we going to have to keep these safety measures in place, whether clients are going to have the financial wherewithal to continue paying attorneys, and what lasting impact this is going to have on our profession.”
Greenlee, a 13th Judicial Circuit representative on the Board of Governors, is a solo practitioner who occasionally relies on contract staff. She likes to maintain a brick-and-mortar office to sharpen the divide between her private and professional life.
But Greenlee closed her office last week as the epidemic raced across the country and she read a Pennsylvania emergency order that listed law offices as “non-essential.”
The week before she closed, Greenlee noticed a significant drop in phone calls and email traffic. That, and keeping a mostly paperless practice, made the transition to a home office relatively easy, Greenlee said.
“Luckily, I used cloud-based services — document management, time keeping/billing — and have a virtual receptionist service, Ruby Receptionists,” Greenlee said.
Less easy, Greenlee said, has been notifying clients about the epidemic’s impact on the courts.
Explaining it to Clients
In a series of administrative orders, the Supreme Court has canceled jury trials and most non-essential, in-person hearings, and stressed the need for using remote technology. Chief judges in each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits have followed suit.
“It can be difficult explaining to clients that their business litigation civil matters are not essential under the administrative orders, and therefore, necessarily, have to be delayed right now,” Greenlee said. “I am hopeful that if this lasts for any length of time, we will see more civil hearings going forward by phone or with the use of other technology.”
Sarasota personal injury attorney Scott Westheimer feels fortunate that his 10-lawyer firm had been using advanced teleconferencing software and cloud-based technology for years, making the transition to remote work relatively seamless.
A 12th Circuit representative on the Board of Governors, Westheimer is now working from home with his child-psychologist wife, who is maintaining her practice via telemedicine. The couple is expecting their second child and work in shifts while the other parent cares for their toddler.
“These have definitely been interesting times,” Westheimer said.
Westheimer is most concerned about his wife’s pending delivery, and the fallout for his clients, who he says have been understanding, but continue to have pressing needs.
“Some of these cases are life-altering. They involve family law, personal injury; they impact their very livelihoods,” Westheimer said. “They want this to be wrapped up as quickly as possible.”
Another concern, Westheimer said, are the attorneys who are paid by the hour.
A lot of clients and potential clients right now are putting litigation matters on the back burner, and without new clients coming in the door, and without being able to attend hearings and depositions and conduct mediations, a lot of our hourly attorneys are going to be in a catastrophic situation soon.