Practicing Law During Coronavirus
COVID-19 has caused a worldwide health pandemic of the sort that has not been experienced in over a century. As of this July, close to 15 million people have tested positive and over 600,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus worldwide. The danger posed by the virus caused entire countries around the world to go into lockdown, with only essential businesses allowed to remain open. For lawyers and others working in the legal field, that often meant working from home for an extended period of time. As the world opens back up, lawyers and support staff returning to the office must manage the additional stressor posed by coronavirus.
Anyone who works in the legal field is undoubtedly familiar with the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied”, which stands for the proposition that when a litigant is not afforded access to the legal system in a timely matter, it is akin to denying access altogether. This belief has been the guiding force for governments around the world to incorporate rights and procedures into their legal systems that are intended to prevent unnecessary delays. In the United States, the right to a speedy trial in a criminal prosecution is one such example. When the extent of the threat posed by COVID-19 became known, judicial systems around the world were confronted with the need to balance the health risks of the virus with the rights of litigants.
Likewise, lawyers were faced with the need to protect themselves and their staff while simultaneously fulfilling their ethical obligations to their clients. All but emergency in-person hearings ground to a halt in many courts, while many law firms required attorneys and support staff to work from home “virtual” offices.
As courts resume in person operations, lawyers are also returning to their physical offices after weeks, even months, at home. Doing so may come with an adjustment period, as well as increased stress and worry related to COVID-19.
Although we have learned much about COVID-19 over the last several months, it remains an elusive and constantly changing threat. We do know that the virus is highly contagious and that the time it takes for a person to exhibit symptoms after being exposed can be several days, if not weeks. It is also more apparent that the list of symptoms and potential long-term health effects are sundry.
All of this is likely to cause stress and worry for those returning to the workplace.
Then, there is going back to an office after working from home for an extended period of time. For some, getting away from the distractions of home may be welcome! Others, however, may not be as excited about the prospect of giving up their virtual office. For them, being in an office and having to adjust once again can produce anxiety.
Whether you are a senior partner in a large law firm or a solo practitioner with minimal staff, acknowledging the mental health impact of the virus itself, the time spent away from the office and the risks associated with the return can be critical to a successful transition back.
Knowing that people are likely to experience a range of mental health issues when the office opens back up is key; so is easing the transition back to work by having a plan in place that addresses those issues. Some of the steps you should consider including in your plan are:
1. Apprising yourself of all applicable laws, orders, and procedures. As an attorney, you are probably already staying apprised of the orders and procedures in your area relating to COVID-19. It is crucial that you stay up to date on your legal responsibilities and obligations. For example, you need to know what your reporting obligations are if an employee tests positive.
2. Stocking up on all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). In many countries that have started to reopen, wearing a mask in public is mandatory. Even if your office is not in a jurisdiction that requires masks to be worn, providing masks, gloves and other PPE to your staff could go a long way toward alleviating the worry that comes with returning to the office.
3. Arranging for additional cleaning and sanitizing of the office. Another step you can take to help reduce of anxiety is to arrange for extra cleaning and sanitizing of the entire office for the foreseeable future. The extra cost will likely be well worth it if it increases productivity and decreases anxiety.
4. Communicating with co-workers and support staff prior to returning to the office. Overcommunicate, listen to staff concerns and fears, and respond accordingly. If you are able to remedy the concern, do so. If you are not, acknowledge the individual’s feelings, that we are all living in uncertain times and that your firm will do its best.
5. Try to be flexible. There will likely be people in your office who are opposed to returning to the workplace. For many, this is because they, or someone they love, are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Do what you can to be flexible. Consider alternative work scenarios, such as allowing certain staff to continue to work from home or in an isolated office.
6. Encourage transparency and inter-office communication. As your office returns to some semblance of normal, it will be important to communicate with each other and to be as transparent as possible with one another. Encourage everyone to express their feelings and concerns. Consider a weekly meeting devoted to discussing all things related to COVID-19.
7. Have a plan for exposure within the office. Until a vaccine is available, COVID-19 will continue to spread at varying rates across the globe. Even if your office is located where the spread has slowed considerably, having a plan in place to handle an in-office exposure to the virus will be crucial in easing worry among the office staff.
8. Create procedures for meeting with clients. Many clients may prefer to continue meeting virtually to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Other clients will only be reassured by an in-person meeting. To reduce stress, create systems both to accommodate virtual client meetings and to safely have clients visit the office.
9. Educate yourself on mental health issues. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to be able to recognize the signs that indicate someone is facing a mental health crisis. It can be particularly difficult to recognize such signs, which makes mental health awareness education imperative.
10. Accept that we may all be facing a new “normal”. Expecting the office to return to “business as usual” may be the surest path to increased anxiety. Focus on accepting the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic may have indefinitely changed how we live and work. Adapting to the “new normal” can facilitate the maintenance of realistic procedures and a healthy state of mind.