How the Pandemic Has Changed the Practice of Law
In January, a few members met via Zoom to share experiences and reflect on the past year. Prior to the meeting we asked folks to consider a few questions. Firstly, what are your successes, words of wisdom, and best advice—given or received. Overwhelmingly, the committee members responded that simply picking up the phone and calling someone has been invaluable. A year ago, right before in person meetings abruptly ceased, it was easiest to walk down the hall or meet someone for coffee when we needed to ensure clarity. But with email now the norm for communicating, clarity can be sometimes difficult to obtain because email lacks tone. All agreed that in order to avoid confusion or misunderstandings, give the person a quick call.
Gone (for now) are the days of cocktail parties and post-work gatherings—the places we used to network and meet new people. But networking is an integral part of being an attorney. How have you managed networking and mentorship in this virtual world? One member noted that prior to the pandemic their firm held periodic lunch meetings to ensure newer staff members and attorneys were getting to know each other. With the pandemic, they’ve transitioned to a virtual platform so newer employees still get the same experience and don’t feel lost or out of the loop.
Another person noted that virtual meet ups actually give you more time to spend with more people--when you’re not having to factor in travel time, it’s a lot easier to squeeze in two or three calls in a day, whereas previously you might have only been able to do a lunch meeting or a morning coffee. All agreed with the importance of reaching out to people and making sure they feel connected.
And it’s not just networking that has changed in the practice of law. As one member noted, you’re constitutionally entitled to a speedy criminal trial—the same does not apply to a civil trial. In some areas, civil cases are being pushed out several months. Many North Carolina counties are allowing virtual hearings; however, a few are still holding in person trials—forcing attorneys to travel to those counties. A perfect example is the member who had just returned from a deposition in New Hanover county that had to be in person. She commented that while it was a long drive—nearly from one end of the state to the other—the time in the car gave her time to think and be out of the house/office that we don’t often get these days.
But that doesn’t change the fact that trials may still be difficult to manage. One county may be open for trials because they have a larger courthouse that is able to ensure social distancing and accommodate jury trials, whereas smaller counties do not have the space at all for a jury trial. And once you get the go ahead to have the jury trial, the next hurdle is finding 10 people who are willing and able to be on a jury panel. These are situations we will continue to face for months to come.
Turning these changes caused by the pandemic into an asset and seeing the silver linings has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. We may be in this for awhile longer, so how to make the best of it? And the conversation really circled back to the one of the original points—picking up the phone and making an effort to personally reach out has been a game changer in the new normal. The irony of the pandemic is that in some ways we’ve become better communicators. And communication will be key when everything does eventually open up because at that point everything that has been pushed to the back burner will suddenly need to be scheduled.
That’s where everyone learning Zoom may come in handy—client meetings that used to be in person can be transitioned to virtual meetings, allowing for multiple meetings in a day, freeing up time for in person cases, and saving your client money as well. Of course, online meetings have their drawbacks—not everyone has access to reliable internet. Someone noted one of his clients struggled to find a good wi-fi signal, making it nearly impossible to take her statement. Additionally, online only meetings remove some of the humanity we were used to with in person meetings. You can’t know what the judge is feeling because you can’t read their body language. Mingling in the hallways of court houses with other attorneys when there are face to face trials is verboten—all but eliminating the chance to form relationships that might be beneficial in the future.
The practice of law may never return to “normal.” But the pandemic has offered the unique opportunity to step back and assess the profession. For good and for bad. As one member said, “It’s difficult to predict the potential assets from this experience as we remain in the midst of it, I’m sure everyone will come out of it with different lessons.”