Juggling Justice During COVID-19
Attorneys have faced their own set of obstacles throughout the pandemic, but never lost sight making the system work for their clients.
Back in March, the abrupt shutdown of state and local government caused a ripple effect in the legal community. Cases could not move forward in the courts, not only handicapping attorneys from doing their job, but also preventing citizens from resolving issues. Not surprisingly, there was an economic impact as well.
“Attorneys, many of which are small or solo practitioners with Main Street practices, took a big hit as a result of the pandemic,” says Kimberly A. Yonta, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA). “Those who make their living in municipal courts felt it the heaviest. With people forced to stay home, that meant fewer arrests, fewer speeding tickets, therefore fewer clients to represent. More importantly, citizens could not get into court with their attorneys to resolve license suspensions or go to the DMV to show paperwork and have their license reinstated.”
Trial by jury is a core component of the American justice system, however this too has been disrupted by the pandemic. Yonta says those practicing in civil, personal injury and medical malpractice law have not been able to move their cases at all without a jury.
Ken Andres Jr., a founding and managing partner of The Law Offices of Andres & Berger, P.C., has spent his decades-long career representing individuals that have been injured in motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, wrongful death and other serious injury claims. He says he believes these clients have been disproportionately affected.
“The only avenue to recovery for clients who are injured and unable to work is a jury trial,” Andres says. “Without trials scheduled, insurance companies know they do not have to pay settlements, which is what would normally occur. This is creating hardships for them.”
With jury trials in a holding pattern, Andres says courts are investigating alternatives to a regular jury trial, potentially even “virtual” jury trials. “Hopefully the pandemic will ease before we have to go that route. … I think it is important to note that technological advances should not replace in-person jury trials,” he says.
While those working in the local court system dealt with the shutdown, attorneys who work on the federal level, such as Shereen Chen of Chen Gray Law, stayed fully operational.
As an immigration and nationality attorney, Chen says United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) never closed. “People still wanted or needed to come in and out of the country, which meant we had to continue filing visas or citizenship,” she says. “One area where we saw a tremendous impact was those with visitor visas who had arrived here for the 2019 holidays. Those visas were good for six months, so right when they were planning to return home, COVID hit and stopped all travel. We had to work fast to apply for visa extensions and keep them compliant.”
Chen adds that changes to immigration regulations caused many applications to be rejected, which compounded delays that were already bad due to COVID. “We’ve had to be even more personal with clients and help them understand that we remain diligent but our hands are tied because of scheduling restraints,” she says.
The justice system—like everything else—has also had to make the shift to remote and virtual operations. “As lawyers, we’re very good at making things work,” says Yonta. “The profession came together and figured out creative ways to help clients. The work still had to get done. Justice had to move forward.”
The pandemic motivated a lot of people to pursue estate planning and wills, and Yonta says it posed a challenge on how to notarize these documents without being able to meet in person. “The NJSBA worked on getting a remote notary bill passed and it was quickly signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. … It helped us move the ball forward on taking care of these matters for clients,” she says.
Anecdotally, Yonta reports that family law attorneys have been doing well with the virtual platforms, commenting that some of her colleagues in that field say the last two quarters were their best ever.
David Gelman, a criminal defense attorney who founded Gelman Law, says adjusting to the new dynamic in the early days of the pandemic was “crazy,” but now everybody is starting to get acclimated to it. “Zoom has become a tremendous service to the legal community and a lot of things are being done via Zoom now,” he says. “We were very lucky; we have a very large conference room and a lot of clients want to come in and do court appearances from our office, which is fine. We social distance and everything. It helps out a lot of other clients as well, because they’re either working or they don’t want to leave their home and it helps them to handle a court matter in the privacy of their own home.”
As a business owner, Andres was required to implement upgraded systems for video conferencing. “In our practice we have been able to accommodate clients via Zoom or telephone, and we’ve been conducting depositions and arbitrations remotely, but we do miss the personal face-to-face contact with clients. That being said, we are able to provide quality legal representation using technology,” he says.
Communicating and the reliance on technology has had its own obstacles for clients. “A majority of clients in our practice are foreign and some don’t have the capability or computer access to remote into a meeting,” Chen says. “We’ve had to be more flexible with clients. … This is the one time I’ve made an exception with my cell phone because clients seem to be comfortable with Facetime. We’re going out of our way to cater to them.”
By and large, attorneys expect Zoom and virtual meetings to stay for the long term. “Before this pandemic, I would be running to four or five different courts per day,” Gelman says. “Sometimes in court you get delayed, and when you get delayed in one court that piggybacks to another. Now I’m in court, we get the matter resolved, and then I’m off to the next court over Zoom. There’s no sitting in traffic going to different courts. I think it has become much more efficient than it was in the past. I do think we will still need in-person court proceedings for certain matters, but I think this is something that is probably going to be here to stay in the long run. It’s a cost-effective solution for the towns and people really like it.”
Chen says it’s surprising how well things have worked in a profession that typically required so much face to face. “I think it’s going to stay and will result in a huge amount of time savings for us and the clients. They can choose if they want to meet in person or have this virtual option if driving to our office is not convenient.”
As winter approaches, everyone is on alert for spiking cases and the potential for another shut down. “Offices in North Jersey are closing again, staff are working remote. I think it will get worse before it gets better but that doesn’t mean everything will stop and shut down like it did last spring,” Yonta says. “We’ve gotten better at doing things virtually and we can’t have a backlog, so courts will figure out how to keep working and keep cases moving forward.”
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Published and copyrighted in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 9 (December 2020).
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