The pandemic has brought some positive changes for lawyers and their clients.
Now, I can even make appearances and take down depositions remotely, whereas I would have been locked into being in my office or in Louisiana. So, for me it’s a great thing, but it’s even more important for young mothers or young fathers who want to spend two, three, four days working at home so they can be there for their kids. That’s tremendous.
Bruce Cranner, defense trial lawyer, Talley Anthony Hughes and Knight
For more than a year, the deadly COVID-19 pandemic completely disrupted the nation’s economy. However, paradoxically, the historic event has also had many positive side effects. For example, members of the New Orleans legal community say the pandemic sped up the implementation of new technologies and procedures that have saved time, cut red tape, created work flexibility and improved quality of life for clients and lawyers.
The biggest change, of course, is that everyone has learned to work away from the office.
“Clients, judges and, more importantly, people who manage law firms are learning that we can do a lot remotely,” said Bruce Cranner, a defense trial lawyer at the Mandeville office of Talley Anthony Hughes and Knight. “That means a lot of people can practice law and make a great living without necessarily having to be in an office in an urban or suburban environment on a full-time basis. That opens a lot of opportunities for people to have a better lifestyle, job satisfaction and better longevity in the practice of law than ever before. That’s a very big positive.”
Charles H. Abbott, litigation partner at Forman Watkins & Krutz, agrees.
“The biggest long-term impact of the pandemic is the remote technology: the Zoom hearings, the Zoom conferencing, and the potential elimination of in-person appearances moving forward,” he said. “There are certain things that no doubt as a litigator you still want to be in person, but there are other things where video conferencing is more efficient, such as non-confrontational status conferences where attorneys may be driving down to court for 10 minutes just to set the trial date.”
Cranner said he’s an “old-time guy” who sees the benefit of showing up to the office, but he also sees the benefit of having the flexibility to work remotely.
“It gives me the opportunity to enjoy traveling, to enjoy living a more relaxed life that doesn’t include commuting, and that’s great and that’s extending my career,” he said. “I still want to be active, still want to litigate. I want to continue to practice for many years, but my kids are grown and I have the ability to travel, to do more things. Now, I can even make appearances and take down depositions remotely, whereas I would have been locked into being in my office or in Louisiana. So, for me it’s a great thing, but it’s even more important for young mothers or young fathers who want to spend two, three, four days working at home so they can be there for their kids. That’s tremendous.”
Jeffrey Hoffman, a partner at Hoffman, Nguyen and Kuehl, said that a big benefit of the video conferencing that’s become standard practice in the last year and a half is that it’s cutting down on wasted time.
“From a client’s perspective, meeting virtually over a Zoom platform is now commonplace and much easier for clients than going through the hassle of coming downtown,” said Hoffman. “Even more important, with the courts, minor issues like a rule or motion that needs to be heard can be done on Zoom. It saves a bunch of time and money because you don’t go down there to sit and wait for hours, so you can get your requested relief or divorce judgment faster.”
Hoffman said the hour or two that he’s no longer sitting in court can be filled with productive work on another case.
“That’s really been an improvement in efficiency because the courts can stagger the start times,” he said. “You just log on when it’s your staggered time and they can handle it pretty quickly — as long as you make sure all your stuff is turned in beforehand.”
‘Accelerate What Was Already Happening’
Lawyers tend to be slow to change, said Nicholas P. Arnold, partner at Blue Williams, but the events of the last year and a half have changed all that.
“All the pandemic did was accelerate what was already happening,” he said. “It was something that most of the bar would recognize needed to happen and it was the perfect catalyst. It’s driving firms to be leaner in their administrative overhead thanks to the pandemic requiring us to be flexible in our approach to what it means to be productive.”
George Mueller, a partner at Chehardy Sherman Williams, said the pandemic built on changes that have been in the works since life after Hurricane Katrina.
“One of the reasons most of the firms in town were able to immediately pivot and transition to working remotely is that after Katrina, everyone had to learn what the cloud was,” he said. “So, after 16 years and an increased leverage on connectivity and IT, everyone was able to go home, sign in and do what they normally do. Everyone peeled the tape off their laptop cameras and transitioned right to Zoom and Microsoft Teams.”
To Zoom or Not to Zoom?
A civil tort defense attorney by trade, Arnold said he works “just fine” using video conferencing and other tools. “In fact,” he said. “I did a lot of work from my deer camp in Texas during the shutdown.” But remote work doesn’t suit every type of lawyer, he said.
“It could be a problem [with] collaboration for some lawyers,” said Arnold. “It’s not ideal to push a team-based practice area into a more remote work environment. For individual practitioners, it’s fine, but if you are working in a more complex arm of law that requires a lot of hands on deck and frequent communication among the team, sometimes technology can’t replace what needs to be an in-person collaboration. There are many moving parts to a class action, for example, and that requires many different professionals and specialties.”
Charles Abbott agrees.
“For me personally, I still want to do depositions in person,” he said. “There are some of those intangibles of actually being across from a deponent that I don’t think Zoom gives you.”
Video conferencing is also less-than-ideal for mentorship, an important aspect of a young lawyer’s career.
“With remote practice, the opportunities for face-to-face meetings are fewer so we need to be more mindful, especially those of us that are senior, that we need to make time for mentorship,” said Cranner.
In a surprise twist, the shared challenges of the last year and a half have brought about a new level of civility among lawyers.
Arnold said even the most hardened, “combatant-type” litigators have had to become practical and realistic about what it’s going to take to move their cases forward.
“Folks like me have put down their swords a little bit and fight about what really matters instead of going after every potential objection you can lodge to something,” he said. “It forces people to be more surgical and resolution oriented. It’s good because the pain in my practice is dealing with the blowhards on the other side who fight for everything and the pandemic made them humble themselves to realize it’s about the client, not your ego. The level of civility I have encountered is really pretty awesome.”
Mueller seconds that emotion.
“There’s a shared burden, all dealing with COVID-19, trying to get everything done,” he said. “And frankly, with that in mind, it’s a lot harder to be uncivil. The natural inclination is to get along —while not sacrificing client advocacy by any stretch — but things come off a little easier.”
Folks like me have put down their swords a little bit and fight about what really matters instead of going after every potential objection you can lodge to something,” he said. “It forces people to be more surgical and resolution oriented. It’s good because the pain in my practice is dealing with the blowhards on the other side who fight for everything and the pandemic made them humble themselves to realize it’s about the client, not your ego. The level of civility I have encountered is really pretty awesome.
Nicholas P. Arnold, partner at Blue Williams