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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, March 20, 2020

Virus precautions change norms of practicing law


Court dates, depositions, meetings on hold, altered as attorneys work from home



Every day, the picture is the same in Chattanooga’s law firms and courthouses: Attorneys and clients shake hands and sit in closed offices or conference rooms to discuss the matters that have brought them together, parties locked in litigation gather in courtrooms to wrestle for a resolution and district attorneys and public defenders stand before judges to argue their cases.

Attorneys take depositions while court reporters record every word, divorcing couples sit at either side of a mediator to figure out how to move forward and the accused pack courtrooms for another day of bail hearings, preliminary hearings and trials.

Even in the age of facetiming, texting and emailing, this is how the wheels of the legal system turn. To a great extent, the law is still practiced in person.

But March 13, concerns for public health led the Tennessee Supreme Court to issue an order that shook the legal community like a heavy tremor: The state’s courts would remain open during the coronavirus outbreak, but all in-person judicial proceedings would be suspended through March 31.

The order included a list of exceptions, including bond-related matters and plea agreements for jailed individuals, civil and criminal jury trials already underway and proceedings related to orders of protection.

The court also extended the deadlines for statutes of limitations set to expire between March 13 and April 6 to April 6.

But between the lines, the highest court in the state was telling attorneys the same thing President Trump said in an address to the nation the same day: Go home.

Brittany Faith, an immigration attorney, felt the ground shake at Grant Konvalinka, where she often meets with clients to not only discuss their cases but also tend to logistics.

“I do a lot of special immigrant juvenile visas, and those require signatures,” Faith says.

Messages sent to Faith’s email now receive an automatic reply informing the sender that she’s working remotely unless she has a scheduled meeting or a court appointment that’s not continued.

“All of my calls are being forward to my cellphone, and we’re encouraging clients to email documents and make payments online or by phone,” the message reads.

Criminal defense attorney Matt Brock also felt the ground rumbling.

“I’m looking at my calendar and wondering how I’m going to handle my cases,” he says. “On Monday, I had two cases in Sessions and one in Criminal, but I know those are not going to happen, so I start calling my clients and telling them their cases are going to be moved, but to when, I don’t know.”

By Tuesday, law firms around the city were still essentially open but were either allowing their attorneys to work remotely or had skeleton crews handling essential matters.

Spears Moore was open but limiting office meetings as much as possible, while there was still a hum of activity at Leitner Williams, which was open but closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for workplace safety.

In an effort to assist public health officials with social distancing, Husch Blackwell was in the midst of phasing in a work-from-home protocol that would result in most of its lawyers and staff working from home.

“We’re maintaining a small team in each office to handle vital tasks that can’t be performed remotely,” a spokesperson for the firm said.

Although a confirmed instance of COVID-19 in one of Baker Donelson’s attorneys led the firm to close its New Orleans and Mandeville, Louisiana, offices, its Chattanooga workplace still had a clean bill of health, so its lights were on, as well.

“Baker Donelson is committed to continuing to serve our clients regardless of the situation, so we’re not closing,” a representative with the firm said. “However, out of an abundance of caution and to protect our clients and employees, many of our employees are voluntarily working from home.”

Attorneys who elected to continue working in their offices, with their computers and files at their fingertips, found it was no longer business as usual.

Medical malpractice attorneys Alix Michel and David Ward bumped a deposition after one of the other attorneys said he was sick. It concerned them and spooked the court reporter, he says.

“When a lawyer says, ‘I’ve been to California twice in the last couple of weeks and I’m not feeling well,’ nobody wants to be in a room with him,” Ward says.

While the court’s order was designed to limit physical interactions, it did not prohibit proceedings by telephone, email or other means that didn’t involve in-person contact.

It also suspended Tennessee rules that limit a judge’s or clerk’s ability to use video arraignments and other technologies that can help limit in-person contact.

So, a new paradigm for doing legal work surfaced at local law firms almost overnight, aided by years of establishing secure systems that allow attorneys to work remotely.

As a result, local firms are not anticipating any issues with their ability to serve their clients.

“Many of our attorneys and key staff are already used to working remotely, so we’re simply scaling up the technology and processes we already use every day,” the firm’s spokesperson says.

“We have been working for years to increase the ability of our attorneys and staff to work remotely,” says Rusty Gray, managing shareholder for Baker Donelson’s Chattanooga office. “We’ve developed systems, which many of our attorneys already use regularly, for almost seamless work from outside the office.

“We can access what we need and communicate how we need wherever we have cellular or Wi-Fi connections.”

As a new parent, Faith already works from home about 15 hours a week. Instead of returning to the office after retrieving her son from day care and eventually putting him to bed, she’s accustomed to flipping open her laptop and tending to the easier tasks associated with her practice.

While Faith’s laptop allowed her to be functional at home, it didn’t enable her to be as productive as she could be at work, she says, where she enjoyed the use of two monitors and other office equipment. So, to improve her productivity at home, she says she recently installed dual monitors and purchased a printer that can also scan documents.

“The firm just bought all-new monitors and laptops, so we have a lot of old monitors lying around. I snagged two of those,” she says.

Faith and her husband also upgraded their internet speed and bandwidth and purchased Wi-Fi extenders, giving them a strong signal throughout their residence.

“My son’s day care is closed, and if I’m going to work from home, he’s going to need some screen time and I’m going to need good internet,” Faith says. “Now I have a setup that’s pretty similar to what I have at the office.”

Faith is still ironing out the wrinkles of her home system. Certain documents still require signatures, for example, but she believes a combination of scanning and snail mailing the papers will get the work done, albeit less efficiently than normal.

However, she expects her swifter internet will facilitate better smooth video conferences with clients who have a computer or iPhone.

In addition to allowing attorneys to repurpose older equipment, Grant Konvalinka is buying new printers for its legal assistants and paralegals and installing them in their homes. Although this is an unforeseen expense, the firm believes it’s necessary.

“It’s going to be expensive and we’re going to lose money because we’re buying things we hadn’t planned on buying now, but we’re making smart choices and using resources we already have,” Faith says.

Brock says the attorneys and judges who work in the criminal justice system in Hamilton County are adjusting well using a combination of methods, including videoconferencing, filing motions with affidavits and placing cases on the docket after the suspension period.

“I had a bond modification hearing set for this week, and a district attorney and I resolved the matter on the phone,” he says. “Justice can be served under these circumstances.”

As a result of court’s order allowing bond-related matters and plea agreements to proceed in person and granting the use of video arraignments, Brock also believes his clients’ constitutional rights are intact. “Of course, that’s easy for me to say when I’m not the person who’s been accused of a crime,” he adds.

As with any seismic adjustment within a complex system, the threat of further tremors exist. But Michel and Ward are focused on responding to immediate changes, as they believe any view of what lies on the horizon is going to be blurry at best.

“We’re addressing things day by day as information comes in,” Michel says. “At first, we wondered if there would be a Masters Tournament, and it turned out there won’t be. Then this morning, I learned there won’t be Kentucky Derby in May. “So dates over a month from now are being impacted. How far down the road is this going to go? We don’t know.”

Baker Donelson is among the firms that are trying to keep an eye on the constantly shifting future.

Weeks ago, the firm established an internal task force to monitor developments on the coronavirus and prepare the firm to make changes when necessary.

Members of the task force include Baker Donelson leadership, human resources and information technology to ensure the firm is considering every potential scenario.

“Our hope is that the duration of this crisis will be limited, but regardless of how long it lasts, we have ample resources to service our clients and keep our people safe,” says the firm’s representative.

As lawyers have adjusted to the changes that have occurred since COVID-19 materialized in the U.S. and the court suspended in-person proceedings, they have acquired an unexpected commodity: free time.

Michel is making good use of his.

“I’m taking care of the minutia at the corner of my desk that I usually don’t have the time to deal with,” he says.

Brock is also making the best of the unusual circumstances. “I don’t have to wear a suit and I’m getting caught up on small stuff,” he says.

Firms like Baker Donelson, Husch Blackwell and others, however, are pressing forward as though they are in the midst of the hurricane and not its eye.

Even as conference and courtrooms through Chattanooga experience a lull in activity and noise, the wheels of the legal system are still turning, and their expertise and ability to labor tirelessly are needed as much – if not more – than ever.

“We’re not only ready to serve our existing clients,” Baker Donelson’s representative says, “we’re prepared to take on new clients, especially as businesses are faced with navigating so many issues related to this new reality.”