Practicing Law During Covid-19 Shelter-in-Place

A few weeks ago life was different. We could enjoy a meal with friends at a restaurant, our kids were in school, and toilet paper lined store shelves. Now we’re relegated to takeout, our houses have become makeshift schools, and the toilet paper shortage has become a meme. Modern American life underwent a drastic transformation in a matter of days.

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect of life on earth. The legal industry is no different. Legal professionals like the team at Marker & Crannell are adjusting and adapting to the constraints that social distancing and healthy at home orders have placed on our profession. Like you we have many questions about how the pandemic will affect our lives. While Marker & Crannell’s physical location is closed, we are still serving our community and fighting for our clients.

Before the pandemic one could practice law anywhere if they had a phone line and a high-speed internet connection. Legal research is no longer done in a library but online portals like LexisNexis and WestLaw. Pleadings and legal documents no longer need to be filed in person; they can be filed online – in fact, most jurisdictions have required e-filing for years now meaning we couldn’t file paper copies if we wanted to! The one constraint on an attorney’s location was court dates. This may come as a surprise, but attorneys do most of their work behind a keyboard and not in court. What you see in the courtroom is the result of countless hours of research and preparation. This should not downplay the importance of court in an attorney’s life. The courtroom is essential to the practice of law. It is where disputes are settled, and deadlines are set. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused court systems around the country to close for all but the most essential proceedings. For many civil cases this means that their next court date will be sometime in June (as of now). While courts may be closed their personnel are doing what they can to ensure minimal delays to cases. One way they are doing this is by expanding what can be done over video chat.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing legal professionals to utilize video chat services like Zoom and Skype in ways that were unimaginable just a few weeks ago. The state of Illinois now allows the remote notarization of documents. Notaries can now notarize documents over a “two-way, real time audio-video communication that allows for direct interaction between the notary and the consumer.”  If you need something notarized during the pandemic you may be able to this over face time. Video chat has also been used for mediations.

A mediation is an aided settlement negotiation. Before the pandemic this meant getting both parties in a single location and having the mediator shuttle messages, offers, and counter offers between them. This is the perfect set up for video chat. In fact, some mediators are starting to perform mediations over video chat so that cases can continue to move forward during this pandemic. While a mediation is a dispute resolution strategy conducive to video chat there are other more complex proceedings which are being attempted over video chat.

Recently a binding arbitration was performed over video chat. A binding arbitration is essentially a bench trial. A bench trial is a trial without a jury. As there is no jury the Judge hands down the verdict. This type of trial is perfect for social distancing as there is no need to call in a jury pool and perform jury selection. Jury trial are a hallmark of the American justice system but as of late there have been no serious discussions regarding how video jury trials would proceed. While a bench trial has fewer moving parts than a jury trial it is no small feat to perform over video chat. For a bench trial to work attorneys need to be able to present exhibits, questions witnesses, and argue objections. The attorneys were able to perform all these things over Zoom and one of the parties was even able to appear from North Carolina. This is an exciting development as it shows that cases can move forward despite courthouses being shut down.

It will be interesting to see how the COVID-19 pandemic changes the landscape of legal services. Like most things in the COVID-19 saga those of us living through it will have to wait and see what happens. I am hopeful that the developments we see during this time of crisis will make legal services more accessible to more people.

In this time of social distancing the team at Marker & Crannell have the right tech to continue to provide you with the legal services you need. While our office is closed and we are no longer available to meet with you in person we are still accepting new clients and the entire team is available via text, call and email. Our attorneys and staff can meet with existing and new clients via video conferencing (powered by Zoom).  We have the ability to have our clients sign documents electronically and even notaries can notarize remotely.  Our case management software, Smokeball, is the best of the best, top of the line, cloud-based legal case management built with security and privacy in mind.  It connects directly with our phone system, e-filing systems, electronic signing services, and it allows our team members to have access to every single aspect of our clients’ files without having to go to the office. We didn’t see the pandemic coming, but because we chose to operate our office on the best cutting edge technology available to law firms, we were prepared for it.

Tags: covid-19

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