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Trial separation: Legal community copes as most in-person proceedings canceled

Welcome to the practice of law, social distancing style.

As precautions against COVID-19 have ramped up during the past week, nearly every aspect of daily life — including the rhythms of the legal community — have changed.

On March 16, the Missouri Supreme Court suspended most in-person proceedings in appellate and circuit courts until at least April 3.

Jackson County Courthouse

A Jackson County sheriff’s deputy prepares to close up the Jackson County Courthouse at the end of day on March 17. Notices on the door warn visitors of restrictions related to the COVID-19 virus. Photo by Scott Lauck

The order makes a number of exceptions for hearings necessary to protect the constitutional rights of criminal defendants and juveniles, as well as emergency matters, temporary restraining orders and proceedings directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency itself.

Courts across the state have imposed restrictions on who can enter courthouses. Mass dockets and jury trials have been canceled, and courtrooms are disinfected regularly.

Jackson County Circuit Judge J. Dale Youngs, who is serving as the circuit’s acting presiding judge, said activity at the downtown Kansas City courthouse has greatly diminished as a result of court and county orders. He said it is similar to the court’s experience in 2019, when the courthouse was closed for an extended time period after it flooded.

Youngs said the circuit has reduced the number of employees at the courthouse by staggering shifts. But some employees “just have to be there,” he said, including youth workers and those who work in detention.

“Those folks, we need to work with them to make sure they’re safe,” he said. “They are essential employees in every sense of the word.”

He said he also is using teleconferencing to hold some hearings, though it’s not his preferred way to interact with litigants.

“I hope it doesn’t become a new normal for us because I rely on the ability to see people and observe people,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court and three districts of the Court of Appeals have canceled upcoming oral arguments, though dates vary. Instead, they are taking cases on briefs or rescheduling arguments.

Jonathan Sternberg, an appellate lawyer based in Kansas City, said the lack of oral arguments is particularly difficult in some complex cases.

“There are certain cases that you really can’t submit on the briefs and think you’ve had your day in court,” Sternberg said.

Among the cases affected is a $113.7 million jury verdict for Missouri corrections officers that the Supreme Court was to hear on April 22. Gary Burger of Burger Law in St. Louis, an attorney for the class of corrections officers, said he’s exploring doing oral arguments using the web conferencing program Zoom. He’s using similar technology for his practice, which is generally working out well — though he said it will be more of a problem when trying to do depositions, which should be done in person.

Attorneys in firms large and small are adjusting. Annette Griggs of Griggs Injury Law in Kansas City said she’s still going into the office, which she shares with several other small firms. Paralegals work on a rotating basis, she said, while the receptionist is able to work the internet-based phone system from her home.

“It’s so weird doing that, but I think we can get it worked out,” Griggs said.

Kevin Baldwin of Baldwin & Vernon in Independence said his firm now is handling mediations by telephone and videoconferencing. The firm, which handles employment law, has been inundated with inquiries.

“We are busy, but in the spirit of unity we are not charging people for the advice or guidance and we are trying to put them in touch with others who may provide assistance,” Baldwin said.

Matt Bohnen, chief operating officer of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said the firm has had most of its attorneys and staff work remotely.

Shook has offices in locations ranging from London to Seattle. Having different offices affected at different times allowed the firm to try out its pandemic response procedures before the restrictions started to affect its Kansas City headquarters.

“It did allow us to test-run some of those things,” Bohnen said. “But when it started moving, it moved quickly.”

International firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner learned from the best practices of its offices in Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore. Steven Baumer, the St. Louis-based co-chair of the firm, said the firm quickly learned the importance of internal communication and thinking about how clients will be affected by the outbreak.

“We were fortunate in terms of the ability of our Asian offices to take some of the leadership of this initially, working with our full team [to] put together an incident response team right away and stay connected around the globe,” he said.

The in-person restrictions and lack of trials are particularly tough for criminal defense lawyers. Mary Fox, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, said many of the jails have found ways for defenders to make contact with clients in a confidential way without physical contact. She also noted that prosecutors in some jurisdictions have thought twice about issuing warrants in some cases.

“If we do this and everything works out fine in terms of issuing only those cases that really need to be issued, maybe this is a good opportunity for us to look at the criminal justice system in a broader perspective and ask ourselves, ‘Do we really need to be incarcerating all of the people who we incarcerate?’” Fox said.

Virus concerns also have shut down social events within the legal community. Examples include the postponement of a portrait ceremony for recently retired Eastern District judges Lisa Van Amburg and Lawrence Mooney, which had been set for April 14.

And the Supreme Court canceled the April 24 attorney enrollment ceremony for those who took the February bar exam. The ceremony won’t be rescheduled, but exam results are still to be released on April 15.

Chris Brown of Venture Legal said his group, the KC Legal Hackers, has postponed its Law & Technology Conference, which had been set for March 31. The group now is considering if it should be a virtual event.

He said the event was supposed to last a full day, which poses a problem for people logging on remotely.

“I don’t think anybody wants to sit for eight hours,” Brown said.

The Missouri Bar has suspended its in-person programs and is considering what to do with future events, including the annual Solo & Small Firm Conference in June and Annual Meeting in September. In the meantime it has shifted many of its CLEs online. Missouri attorneys can get credit for remote CLEs that are held live.

“I can’t wait until we get to the other side of this, but I think we’re going to find people are more efficient,” said the bar’s president, Tom Bender. “It’s kind of forced us in part to re-examine some of the things we do.”

RELATED: Missouri Suprem Court suspends most in-person proceedings at state courts

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