As I write this blog post, I just got an appointment for my first COVID vaccine shot for February 6. I am 65, just barely, which qualifies me for this early round of vaccines. Lucky me! With the vaccine soon to be widely available, the pandemic lockdowns and distancing may (we hope!) soon end.
This got me thinking about the post-COVID world. In my little corner of the world representing New York personal injury victims, COVID has driven many changes to the way we practice law. Will the COVID way of practicing of law end when the pandemic ends?
Personally, I hope at least some of the changes are preserved. COVID has taught us certain cost-and time-reducing efficiencies that should, if we maintain them post-COVID, make legal services cheaper without compromising their quality.
Specifically, during this pandemic, our courts and courtroom lawyers have learned that:
- For court appearances where no testimony is required (such as routine conferences, motions, etc.) the wheels of justice turn just fine without live appearances by the lawyers. “Virtual” appearances by “Microsoft Teams” (works like Zoom) get the job done just fine.
- Even when testimony is required, a “bench” trial (no jury, just a judge deciding) works nearly as well virtually as live (except perhaps in complex cases with a large volume of exhibits).
- Depositions can be done virtually, too. Documents and other exhibits can be easily shown on the “screen share” feature of zoom. The lawyer asking the questions can even “point” to certain areas with the cursor, or circle them, as questions are asked of the witness. (However, conducting depositions virtually with multiple parties and lawyers or complicated and voluminous exhibits are a challenge.)
- Almost 100% of the work we used to do in our “office” can be done in hour home office just as well. We can research all our legal issues online, dictate, communicate with clients, conference our secretaries and legal assistances all by a combination of email, phone and zoom. Almost nothing has to take place at the “office” any more. These days, all files are scanned into our server. We can access all our documents there.
The only real loss we trial lawyers have suffered in our practice of law is the freeze on jury trials. It is not possible to conduct a jury trial “virtually”. We are very much looking forward to getting our personal injury cases back on the trial calendar.
What, if any, of all the changes in how we practice law will survive COVID? In other words, will we all go back to the old way of doing things – where physical appearances in court and in the office are expected and required – or will we maintain some of the “virtual” practices we learned during COVID?
My guess is it will be a mix. We will maintain some, but not all, the COVID changes.
Most of the lawyers in my law firm will likely continue to work largely remotely. We have learned how much (commute) time and (vehicle maintenance and fuel) money we save this way. These savings are largely passed onto the client.
Most of us will likely be heading back to the office only to meet clients or orchestrate document production or organize exhibits. Most of us believe we actually accomplish MORE at home, where there are fewer distractions, than in the office.
As for depositions, whether personal injury lawyers like us start going back to the old “in person” way of doing them will depend on our opponents. If they insist on live depositions, so be it. But if both sides agree that virtual depositions will do just fine, we will stick with that.
As for court appearances, the Courts, not the lawyers, will decide whether virtual motions and conferences and other non-testimonial appearances will continue virtually. But my hope is that they continue. When a lawyer is billing a client by the hour, this saves the client money for travel time. And whether it is a bill-by-the-hour case or not, virtual appearances will allow lawyers to avoid commute time, reduce the cost of fueling and maintaining their vehicles, and reduce their carbon footprint.
I speak Spanish at home. There is an expression in Spanish I love that is not easily translatable to English: No hay mal que por bien no venga. It means more or less: “Every bad thing brings something good with it” or “bad things happen for a good reason”.
COVID has been terrible. And I don’t mean to diminish all the economic suffering, and all the lives lost when I say this, but COVID may also have ushered in a new and more efficient, cheaper, and less time-consuming way practice of law. No hay mal que por bien no venga.
Named “Personal Injury Lawyer of the Year” for the Syracuse metropolitan area by Best Lawyers in America.
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Syracuse NY Personal Injury Lawyers
Michaels & Smolak, P.C.