At its heart, practicing law involves bringing knowledge of the law to bear upon a certain set of facts, resulting in the offer of advice and counsel to a client. It seems like that ought to be doable even while adhering to strict social distancing guidelines. And it’s true – we can offer advice just as easily and sometimes more easily by email, letter, phone or video chat.
But most practitioners will tell you that the practice of law is also about relationships and trust, borne of in-person meetings allowing the participants to take the measure of their advisor, their client, or their opponent. They’ll also tell you that so much of our work rests on an end-product involving face to face contact. There is always a closing to finalize the purchase of a business or a building. There is a will signing to put an estate plan in place. How can you get your day in court without, well, going to court? And the most effective mediation sessions almost always involve putting people together to hash out their thorniest conflicts.
We thought we were ahead of the curve in modifying our office practices when we posted our first notice about our beefed-up protocols in the face of the COVID-19 threat. Our first thoughts were for our staff and our clients and so we took steps to limit contacts and to increase cleanings. We held our first teleconference staff meeting. No one was asking us to take such steps at that point – we felt good.
But then we’ve all seen the warnings and the notices getting more alarming by the day. We urged people who could work from home to do so and we took steps to give more people that option. We increased the amount of paid leave for staff and advised everyone to err on the side of caution. We limited which buildings visitors may enter. But with each adjustment, it seemed like the news was outpacing our ability to anticipate and react.
At this point we are doing everything we reasonably can to minimize the number of contacts associated with firm operations while continuing to respond to clients who seek our help. We have cancelled all in-office meetings unless a face to face contact is necessary by law, such as when a notarization is required. Even then, we require all visitors and staff to answer five questions related to their possible exposure before they may enter our offices. And still – we don’t know what’s around the next bend.
It’s possible that all law firm offices in Maine will be forced to close for a while. That won’t completely shut us down since we CAN do many things by email and phone. And lawmakers in Washington have before them a proposal that would allow for even notarizations to be performed remotely. Clients can check our website and reach any attorney or paralegal in our firm by email. But it remains to be seen if the trust borne of closer connections, the knowledge gleaned from taking the measure of another human, will take a hit over the long haul even as we continue to draw near-term satisfaction from achieving successful legal outcomes. Stay safe, everyone. Let’s get through this together.
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