Civil Rights, A Global Pandemic and Justice: Practicing Law in the Era of COVID-19

Just halfway through 2020, the United States has come face-to-face with its racial history; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services slashed healthcare nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQIA+ Americans; activists have amplified calls for prison and police reform that have gone unheard for decades; and, of course, the entire world is grappling with the global pandemic COVID-19.

Amid a push to transform the criminal justice system and mandates to work from home to avoid worsening a public health crisis, how have America’s lawyers adapted their practice?

Nationwide, the pandemic has sparked an economic downturn, which has impacted the legal industry in a manner rivaled only by the Great Recession of 2008–09. While some lawyers have been asked to work from home, many law firms have also slashed salaries and laid off some attorneys, according to Law360, a legal industry news platform.

Some firms have eliminated job openings, rescinded recent offers and shortened or canceled summer programs for law students. Bloomberg analysts worry, too, that current law students or recent graduates will rethink their career paths as a result or enter the field with lower compensation and longer hours than the generation before them.

Their fears might not be unfounded.

ABA Journal reports that 81% of law firms have seen their revenues drop due to the pandemic, with 27% of those seeing their revenue cut by more than half. However, many firms that weathered the recession say that the lessons they learned then are applicable to this downturn, too; in fact, according to an article produced by several members of McKinsey’s Financial Services Practice, law firms actually handle downturns better than the overall economy.

Only the 2008 recession was enough to truly threaten law industry revenue out of the last three economic crises, according to the report — although the authors caution that “the current downturn may turn out to be unprecedented in the postwar era, so law firms must prepare for a wide range of scenarios.”

As the industry becomes stretched for resources and the percentage of communities implementing social distancing rules increases, the court system has become strained and backlogged, according to Vanguard Law.

Some courts refuse to hear cases they deem non-essential, while others stopped allowing people to file any cases at all for some amount of time.

Each court has different rules for practicing law during the outbreak, which makes it even more difficult for lawyers to navigate the current climate.

The American Bar Association announced in March that the precautions, while important, “are expected to exacerbate the significant backlog of cases in state and federal courts, not to mention immigration courts that have a backlog of more than 1 million cases.”

In New York alone, the pandemic has created a backlog of nearly 40,000 criminal cases as courts balance the need to maintain social distancing with the pressing nature of these trials. Metro Atlanta, an emerging coronavirus hotspot, has a backlog of over 2,000 cases, which city spokespeople said won’t be cleared until October.

In the United Kingdom and Wales, a criminal justice system watchdog warns that their coronavirus backlog could take up to a decade to wade through.

We asked four U.S. lawyers about their experiences practicing law during the pandemic’s many challenges, from backlogs and a legal system under scrutiny to the new reality of working from home. Here’s what they shared:

Nouvelle Gonzalo, Esq.

Gonzalo practices law in Ohio and Florida, focusing on U.S. and international corporate law. She is the member-owner of Gonzalo Law, which is based in Cleveland and growing in North Central Florida. She obtained her Juris Doctorate from the Ohio State University.

“This absolutely has fundamentally changed the practice of law, but we don’t really know the full effects of it just yet. … I think for us, it hasn’t changed a whole lot just because we have already been integrating a lot of technology. We already did a lot of Zoom. Our practice focuses on U.S. international corporate law, so we work with companies in lots of different regions and areas … Because we have the two cities that we work from, we did already have people who were calling in via Zoom for weekly meetings from Cleveland, and so we just had everybody go to Zoom.”

“[Working full-time from home with kids is] really tough because it’s not like you’re working from home and the babysitter’s downstairs with them, as I have done in the past. When even the babysitter’s quarantined and can’t come and can’t help, that really is a challenge and so, much to my lament, I had to give them quite a bit more screen time than I would have liked …

I tried to make them watch videos that were helping to build character and then we also had schoolwork.

I think it also gives parents a new appreciation for all the work that the teachers do that I didn’t see all of that behind the scenes, because when you’re actually doing it, you have to pick up assignments and you’ve got to drop off assignments and you’ve got to double check that everything’s done and then you’ve got to do experiments and you’ve got to do this and that. …

It was definitely a challenge, and I’m glad you know that portion of it is over, because you don’t ever get a break. You’re home. You’re working, you’re home, you’re teaching, you’re home, you’re relaxing. And so there’s no break in between that from home. My husband is a physician, so he would leave and go to the hospital to work. But for us, we were all home all the time.”

“I’m a Christian, so I pray for our nation. I pray for things to be healed and to move forward. I listen to what the discussions are and what the concerns are, but I’m big on being informed but not inundated.”

Kevin Bennett, Esq.

Bennett’s practice is based out of Delray Beach, Florida. He practices in multiple areas: family law, commercial, workers’ compensation and small business consulting. Bennett received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

“A lot of clients are paying their lawyers by the hour. The net impact might be to save clients a lot of money if they were to continue with this system. The Chief Justice in the Florida Supreme Court has actually recently amended the operating order.

And now because we’ve gone for approximately two months with no jury trials being conducted, this has created a massive backlog of both civil and criminal trials that should have been conducted but weren’t conducted.”

“We are starting to do jury trials where the jurors are going to be appearing by Zoom. This is novel stuff. It’s being attempted in some other states right now. And frankly, I don’t think anybody knows for sure how it will shake out.

For example, what’s gonna happen if the juror is at their home and then they get up and walk into the kitchen and they miss a testimony? There’s going to be a variety of management issues that will arise.

What happens if a juror is sitting there at their house, doing research on issues relating to the case on their phone where you can’t really see it? You don’t know if they’re actually doing research, which they would not be allowed to do if they were sitting in court. They receive instruction not to do that.

We’re entering into a whole new world as it relates to … jury trials. I’m not sure how long it will last, and I’m not even sure if it will be successful, and nor am I sure what the impacts will ultimately determine to be for the due process rights of the litigates. Now, I understand from reading the order that it won’t be criminal trials, but they are going to do this for civil trials.”

Meredith Hoffman

Hoffman is a rising third-year law student at the University of Miami who plans to practice immigration law. She is working a remote internship with Brooklyn Defender Services, an organization that represents people who cannot afford an attorney, many of whom are immigrants. Hoffman also works with the Immigration Clinic at the University of Miami.

“We started getting word that maybe there would be an ICE staffer who would test positive and that the detainees — the immigrants in detention — would not be told anything. All of a sudden, they would be placed in a giant quarantine. Or all of a sudden, the staff were placed in a quarantine and no one really knew what was going on.

People weren’t getting masks, people weren’t getting soap, people were living in rooms with dozens of people. No precautions, essentially, were being taken. We really just found this out because attorneys have clients in there. Then it was getting harder and harder for the attorneys and legal counsel to even access the people in detention in person. So we had to overcome that hurdle.”

“There was a big lawsuit that we filed to the federal district court in the Southern District of Florida, and it said that ICE wasn’t complying with the CDC guidelines for social distancing and hygiene. Basically, it was causing immigrants to be inflicted with the potential of a life-threatening illness. Many were vulnerable.

I got to interview some of the detained immigrants on Skype. We just collected dozens of declarations. They had their sworn statements that we gave to the court with our argument showing how dire things were, including a man who I interviewed whose bunkmate got so sick and wasn’t getting any medical attention and had a fever and a cough. In the middle of the night, there were ICE agents with police officers who came in and took him out in the middle of the night, and then he was replaced with another man.”

“At first, [working from home] was incredibly confining. But then you also realize that when you can work from home, you do have some flexibility at the same time. But that’s not to at all minimize the seriousness of what we’re going through and the importance of us all continuing to work from home instead of going into offices.

We’ve just gotten our class schedule for law school, and many things are only remote. There’s also something that can be difficult about psychologically keeping your sense of real connectedness to everything you’re doing when it’s all through computers.”

Alexis Rosenberg, Esq.

Rosenberg’s practice operates in three Florida cities Plantation, Sarasota and Boca Raton as well as in the state of New York. She practices health care law, insurance disputes, business litigation, personal injury and personal injury protection. Rosenberg earned her Juris Doctorate from Nova Southeastern University.

“[The biggest challenge transitioning to working from home is] to get everybody able to work remotely, meaning having everybody have a laptop and make sure it was encrypted appropriately and have a firewall and access to all the servers.

Attorneys have always had that ability, but the support staff didn’t, and that was an initial hurdle we had to overcome.

Continuing this way, it was just having the balance of making sure that the staff was working during working hours and they were blocking off time and in an area in their own home that they weren’t going to be interrupted.

Because I have younger children, trying to balance homeschooling with work was a personal challenge for me … Because the younger ones are seven and eight, they can’t really do their homework, so I found a block of time that they were going to do it, and then I hired a virtual tutor to go through and do the work with them because I couldn’t sit there and do it.

I needed to be working like I would even if we weren’t outside the office … So I think it’s setting up those boundaries. In some senses, working from home for me has been easier because I’m not traveling all over the place.”

“It also changed how are you going to network from a lawyer or a law firm standpoint? Normally, there’s a lot of networking events, and those are in person.

How do you now stay connected with your clients? How do you make sure that they feel like you’re still there for them and that they feel connected to you? That’s been a challenge on how to shift. It’s been more letter-writing, note-writing, more emails, more text messages and conversation with them, because I also know that they’re stressed out during this time. There’s been more of a shift, more connection via social media as opposed to in person where we would be going out and having lunch.”

“My staff are really pushing to go back in. They understand that it has to be safe for them to be in there, and I’m going to have to rearrange some of the areas where everybody is six feet apart, but they really want to get back in the office.

I’m not getting ‘oh, I don’t feel comfortable or safe going back in the office.’ I’m getting, on the other end, ‘we promise you we’ll stay six feet away from each other, we promise you, you know, that we’ll wash our hands.’ They want that energy. They really miss going to the office, which I take as a compliment because that tells me that the office actually is a pleasurable place for them to be. Otherwise, I feel like I would be getting the reverse, ‘we want to continue working from home.’”

Andrea Sarcos, an independent photojournalist based in Miami, contributed reporting.

By Emily Rose Thorne

Emily Rose Thorne is a senior at Mercer University studying journalism, women’s and gender studies, and anthropology. She is the editor-in-chief of The Cluster and has bylines for Macon Magazine, Georgia Public Broadcasting, Step Up Magazine, and Atlanta magazine. She also hosts a reproductive justice podcast, Between The Bills. Emily Rose’s work focuses on gender, sexuality, social justice, and health.

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