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Employment, family lawyers see practices shift due to pandemic

Among the myriad ways the COVID-19 pandemic is re-shaping lawyers’ lives is the impact of the crisis on their practices.

Lawyers in two areas, family and employment law, shared how their practices have shifted in the wake of the virus.

Susan E. Block, a family law attorney with Paule, Camazine & Blumenthal in St. Louis, said she’s seen disputes take on a new level of seriousness, adding some of her clients are facing “almost rabbinic decisions that should be made by an ethicist.”

For example, should a child be returned to the other parent, who is living in an intergenerational home with grandparents?

“These are difficult questions,” she said.

Block said she has seen more cooperation between parents in her practice, however. She said she thinks the pandemic has “sort of tamped down fussiness,” and minor spats between parents.

“It’s a little bit of ‘live and let live,’ which in general I think is something that judges would encourage,” she said.

Jonathan D. Marks of The Marks Law Firm in St. Louis said new issues he’s seen include whether parenting or custody plans are affected by stay-at-home orders, how child-custody exchanges are to occur and how online learning will be conducted.

COVID-19 has heightened the need for parents to communicate with each other, especially in terms of safety measures parents are taking, he said.

“That is requiring people to be more involved and have to be more communicative on the procedures,” he said.

Households where one parent was typically more involved with education are now having to ensure both parents are keeping kids on track, he added.

Both Marks and Block said they anticipate more filings to ramp up after the pandemic is over, when people are on a more solid financial footing.

David Lee Wells, a solo practitioner in North Kansas City, is less optimistic: He’s concerned that fewer people employed means fewer people who can afford a divorce.

Wells said he’s already seen a noticeable slowdown as potential clients opt not to proceed.

“They don’t want to start the game of, ‘He didn’t do such and such,’” he said.

Complex employment issues on the rise

In the area of employment law, Judy Yi of Polsinelli in Kansas City said she’s seen a shift in the urgency and immediacy of her communications with clients.

The volume and complexity of their inquiries about employment law, including the new Families First Coronavirus Response Act, also have noticeably increased.

“The single-issue question, the single-law question are really no longer,” she said.

Her firm has formed an interdisciplinary team to field COVID-19 inquiries, and Yi said she increasingly is working closely with colleagues in areas she hadn’t before.

In her 16-year focus on employment matters, Yi said she’s never had a client ask about furloughs, for example — those were mostly relegated to the federal government.

Also unprecedented is the degree to which employment attorneys are absorbing rapidly changing scientific information to help guide their clients.

“Suddenly we have to become epidemiologists and understand the science behind it all,” she said.

In the future, Yi said, employers certainly will see more negligence cases stemming from employee deaths, particularly in states that don’t allow workers who have contracted the disease on the job to seek workers’ compensation.

Those cases will be hard to prove, said Kim Jones of Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris in Kansas City. She pointed to how other infectious diseases, such as the common cold or the flu, are now handled.

“I don’t know that they’ll be very successful unless there’s gross negligence, like not enforcing social distancing,” she said.

Jones said she and her colleagues have been working non-stop on COVID-19-related issues, including helping companies navigate the FFCRA and the economic fallout of the pandemic.

She said the pandemic will provide more of a boost to those seeking a higher national minimum wage and paid sick leave, the latter of which was addressed on a temporary basis in the FFCRA.

“I think it will be really difficult for Congress to make the case they can’t do it on the federal level when they just did,” she said.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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