I have often complained that law school prepared me to be a lawyer, not to practice law. As a lawyer who is unemployed with overhead, that has never been more true than now. Then again, I don’t know if I would have taken seriously a warning back then about our present situation anyway.
My employees all are working in undisclosed locations. The local government directive to stay home exempts essential businesses, including law firms, and enough workers to keep a small business going. Our courts are not allowing in-person hearings and depositions, and mediations and trials have ground to a halt. I am barely essential on a good day; without these appearances I am downright useless.
My office is isolated upstairs from everyone else in my building. I’ve often had days where I work without seeing anyone, but it feels different now. I’ve toyed with the notion of working from home for years, but I never seemed to make it happen much. It is happening now.
I kept my morning routine — shower, shave and suit up — for the first week. By the second week, I had devolved to jeans, and but for the chilly weather here in the Midwest, I would go to the office in pajama pants on the rare occasions when I must. I open the little bit of mail, sign some letters and not much else that can’t be done from my bunker. Or my bunk, truth be told. On the plus side, I know the COVID plans for every company that ever had my email address.
The only schedules we juggle are to make sure that only one person is in the building at a time. Bigger law firms are not allowing anyone in their offices at all. The virus is touching people in my circle physically as well, and I’ve heard from a few lawyers with COVID cases in their firms.
Video conferencing for expert depositions and the like replaced travel for me a long time ago. It has been impossible to buzz through the airport and hop on a quick flight since 9/11, so a video conference makes more sense than a two-day trip. I’m pretty sure that the lack of my physical presence hasn’t cheated any clients out of the Perry Mason moments young lawyers fantasize will happen during cross-examination. Zoom and Skype are now so commonplace that their names have become verbs akin to Googling something or Xeroxing a document.
Working from home has its upside. I met a nice lady the other night, and we had a good conversation. Turns out she is my wife. It must be a struggle for her to have lost eight to ten hours of solitude each day now that I am always here, but she doesn’t complain. Much. Someone pointed out that, after a couple of weeks locked in with his family, he wonders if the Donner party was even hungry. At least my dogs are still glad to see me.
Our phones are so quiet that we’ve checked three times to make sure the bill got paid. Folks who are working from home don’t need a personal injury attorney. Our current clients have more pressing concerns than how their cases are proceeding. A telemarketer called, and I answered just to get to talk on the phone. I’m not sure what I am going to do with the timeshare in South Dakota that he sold me, but he seemed like a nice guy.
I made a trip before work-from-home had switched from suggested to mandatory to complete a car purchase that started weeks ago. I had sold my old car a few days before. I’ve bought and sold lots of cars through the years, but I wouldn’t imagine such a transaction occurring without a single handshake. Instead, the buyer and I stood at opposite ends of the car and air-high-fived.
I rented a car to drive to Chicago to get my replacement vehicle. The rental center was empty, and Lysol hung in the air like Drakkar Noir in the 1980s. After watching the rental people wipe the car down with disinfectant, my wife did a follow-up sweep. I electronically signed the rental documents with my finger, cleaned said finger with antibacterial soap and was out.
I had an appointment at the car dealership but arrived early because there was no traffic on the highway. Not just my compulsory 15 minutes early, either. It didn’t do me any good because the dealership was as vacant as the coffee house at my last poetry reading. My new car was nowhere to be seen. At the prescribed time, a sales associate Zoomed me, but we didn’t have much to discuss. I already had uploaded all of the required documents, giving him no opportunity to sell me an undercoat or a more expensive car.
A young woman drove up minutes later. She was in what certainly resembled my new chariot from the pictures I had seen online. She looked stressed as she raced around the car with disinfectant wipes. I approached her, but she politely held up her latex-gloved hand. She told me to wait 10 feet away until she sterilized the car for me. She scrubbed the touchable car parts before disappearing.
There was an envelope on the dash with a form that I signed and put back in the envelope along with my cashier’s check. I dropped it in the service center mail box and was on my way back home. The process was pretty painless for me, but car makers furloughed large portions of their workforce that weekend.
The trial lawyer’s evolution continues during a pandemic. Change always has been part of my law practice. First mediation replaced trials. Now virtual mediation is replacing mediation centers. E-signatures may force pen and ink manufacturers to join the obsolete club with buggy-whip makers. Hat makers returned to relevance, so there is still hope for the pen folk. I will miss them nonetheless. I am hopeful for the car people, the restauranteurs, the millions of unemployed or soon-to-be unemployed workers who are worrying both about catching the virus and how they will survive financially even if they don’t.
Working from home and even less business travel are a certainty for law firm futures. If we survive the pandemic, we will come out the other side to a world that looks very different from the one we took for granted going in. Here is to hoping we get there soon. All of us.