What Has Covid-19 Taught the Legal Sector?

Covid-19 has impacted the entire globe, its economy, people and everyone's livelihood. In this article, we explore what the legal sector has learnt from this.

The whole world has gone hand sanitiser crazy. The new coronavirus strand, Covid-19, has placed the globe in an unexpected standstill, with people being instructed to stay at home and medical staff being inundated with cases and pressure to nip the virus in the bud. It almost feels like a PG version of a zombie apocalyptic film; streets are quiet, supermarkets have been raided and if someone has braved the outside world, they are most likely wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves from the killer virus. What post-apocalyptic movies fail to showcase is the initial impact on our everyday lives; we, most likely and hopefully, will never reach the point where we are searching for evidence of other human life with a backpack full of necessities and weapons, but instead, are trying to find new ways to entertain ourselves at home and figure out methods that enable to us to still work, earn money and retain control over the normality of our everyday lives.

The stock market crashed leaving the economy in turmoil while SMEs are fighting to stay running as they are simultaneously adhering to governmental guidelines. Every sector has managed to find a way to keep the cogs turning more remotely, without unnecessary face-to-face contact. Even the legal sector, famously known for sticking to its traditional guns, has welcomed the use of video conferencing for important court cases, with lawyers at home still working to keep their clients happy during this uncertain time.

From hearings to depositions, the law has been very slow to adopt new technology that can save time and money.

The Importance of Remote Working

What has the legal sector learnt from all of this? That remote working has its benefits, surely. The most important thing the law is learning from this pandemic is the need to have alternative means and methods for doing our jobs. As Justin A. Hill from Hill Law Firm shares, “From hearings to depositions, the law has been very slow to adopt new technology that can save time and money. The pandemic has made it necessary for attorneys and judges that have never used technology such as video conferencing to conduct essential functions of our practice. I think even after the pandemic passes, this will be a change that will become a much larger part of our practices.”

We have the opportunity to examine these types of outdated mandates and “catch up” with technology

Speaking to Caroline Fox, Principal Attorney at CJFox Law PLLC, she expands on this by saying that if we learn anything from this outbreak, it’s that the legal profession needs to be taking advantage of the technological advances that are available to us.

“Lawyers and courts need to be up-to-date on technology, including secure forms of video communication.  We need to know how to securely access documents and enable quick, efficient communication with our staff and clients.  As a Virginia lawyer, some courts still require wet ink signatures, even in spite of federal acceptance of E-signatures.  We have the opportunity to examine these types of outdated mandates and “catch up” with technology”, Caroline tells us.

And that is not all lawyers need to be up-to-date on to keep things flowing in good order. It has also become wildly apparent that the siloed work of a lawyer needs to be expanded into the practical aspects of practising law. “For example”, expands Caroline, “New lawyers need to be taught how to mail certified letters, how to call the Clerk for scheduling, when and where to send important documents, how to send a fax (with or without a fax machine), and other seemingly “trivial” administrative tasks that are actually the backbone of the legal practice.”

If we enter a recession, for example, we may find that people cannot afford to pay their insurance, potentially leaving us to witness more attorneys dealing with uninsured drivers as a result.

Lawsuits and Class Actions

Of course, we have already touched on how Covid-19 may impact insurance and insurers. But we have to mention here the potential impact the pandemic may have on future lawsuits, as this entire journey is bound to see companies making mistakes. From price-gouging and antitrust violations to insurance and delays in trials, lockdown is guaranteed to be teaching us a lot of lessons.

If we enter a recession, for example, we may find that people cannot afford to pay their insurance, potentially leaving us to witness more attorneys dealing with uninsured drivers as a result.

“Insurance companies may take advantage of hard economic times and attempt to lowball clients, hoping they’ll settle because they need the money now (slow pay or no pay)”, states Founding Partner Bill Karns of Los Angeles personal injury firm Karns and Karns, who expressed his concerns regarding those who may take advantage of the current crisis.

And this is just one aspect of concern for personal injury lawyers Bill tells us. Clients might be afraid to keep their medical appointments out of fear of exposure in medical settings, which reduces case value and courthouses may have to delay or modify proceedings as the courts close down, concerning those currently in the middle of personal injury lawsuits. Even the highly anticipated trial: New York state against McKesson Corp (MCK.N), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N), CVS Health Corp (CVS.N) and others, for allegedly fueling the opioid epidemic, has reportedly been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak[1].

Tackling unprecedented cases such as these further showcases how lawyers need to be malleable and responsive to everything that is occurring at such a fast rate.

Delayed lawsuits are just one, unexpected challenge lawyers are facing during this uncertain time. The bigger challenges are in fact those who will be presenting new cases and problems that need to be dealt with. Price-gouging is certainly one example and is a major concern and issue that lawyers may see more cases regarding. We have seen supermarkets increase the price of toilet roll to ridiculous amounts due to its unusual demand over the past month. In the UK alone, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it had already contacted traders and online trading platforms about excessive pricing of hand sanitiser and that action will be taken against firms that breach consumer protection or competition laws if they do not respond to warnings. According to The Guardian, the government will also be advised on emergency legislation if problems cannot be addressed through existing powers[2].

Tackling unprecedented cases such as these further showcases how lawyers need to be malleable and responsive to everything that is occurring at such a fast rate. In fact, (as reported on law.com), class action suits have already hit the courts: consumers in California filed a federal class action complaint alleging that Vi-Jon, Inc. falsely advertised, marketed, and sold its Germ-X brand hand sanitizers as being able to prevent viruses, including COVID-19[3]; Purell is also under scrutiny and facing a class action lawsuit in New York federal court. The complainants are claiming that Purell falsely said that its Healthcare Advanced Hand Sanitizer can prevent the flu and potentially even the Ebola virus.

Nonetheless, alongside a rise in class action suits against companies taking advantage of the current crisis, we are also likely to see the fast emergence of virtual court hearings and skype conferencing as social distancing continues.

“Mistakes are going to be made. This is an emergency. It’s unprecedented. Nobody really prepared for it,” said plaintiffs attorney Elizabeth Cabraser, of San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein to law.com.

Nonetheless, alongside a rise in class action suits against companies taking advantage of the current crisis, we are also likely to see the fast emergence of virtual court hearings and skype conferencing as social distancing continues.

“It will be vital for any law firm to keep pace with the ever-increasing need to rely on technology”, explains Stuart Snape, Partner at Graham Coffey and Co Solicitors.

What About Big Law?

On a wider societal point, it may be that there is also a recognition that we should be more creative than simply continuing to presume that a business needs an office full of people and that office should be in a city centre. “Covid-19 exposes the vulnerability of congested workplaces and commuters and it may prove a pivotal point in considering whether the firms should look to move away from city centres and focus on a more virtual office environment”, continues Stuart.

We may well see a rise in legal challenges and judicial review of the use of these powers especially if their use goes beyond Covid-19.

This could see a big change in how Big Law firms operate and work in the long-run. With more people working from home, the need to commute to the city is proving less essential. “The government should also consider this carefully when planning future infrastructure.  The obsession with city-centre living and working results in an illogical drive to find ways of getting everyone from their homes to the same city centre at the same time of day every day.”

By encouraging more regional hubs and virtual offices, explains Stuart, would take huge pressures off the transport system, spread more wealth into regions and crucially make it much more difficult for viruses like Covid-19 to spread. If more Big Law firms are outside of cities and working more regionally, could we see a shift in how they work and the clients they represent?

The Power of Legislation and our Governments

The UK Government has been working hard to pass The Emergency Coronavirus Bill 2020. Large sections are designed to ease the burden by reducing some of the safeguards in key areas of health and education, Stuart tells us, and will also increase the powers of the executive to forcibly quarantine people and close premises and even postpone elections.

Even though there remains an on-going uncertainty among the legal profession as to what we can do to help, we have seen communities pulling together during this weird and daunting time.

“There is likely to be significant concern on how these powers are used, not just during the Covid-19 outbreak, but after the outbreak is nothing but a bad memory.  We may well see a rise in legal challenges and judicial review of the use of these powers especially if their use goes beyond Covid-19.”

With The Emergency Coronavirus Bill 2020 also keeping lawyers busy with wide-ranging powers and amendments to existing legislation to help deal with Covid-19, a lesson truly learnt here is the immense powers at the disposal of the state and federal government to restrict the liberties of the entire population.

“Prior to this pandemic, I did not appreciate the immense powers that the federal government had taken upon themselves in the name of public safety. I did not appreciate that the federal government has the power to exert extreme authority to quarantine the entire population in response to a public health concern”, says David Reischer, Esq. Attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com.

In fact, the US Supreme Court has in fact permitted quarantine since 1824, in the landmark case – Gibbons v Ogden. “If the risk of harm is high and life-threatening then there is a Constitutional basis for the federal government to quarantine a population as found in the Ogden precedent via the language found in the ‘Commerce Clause’  of the US Constitution. The Commerce clause gives Congress wide power to regulate Interstate commerce especially during a severe public health concern.”

Even though there remains an on-going uncertainty among the legal profession as to what we can do to help, we have seen communities pulling together during this weird and daunting time. “Many lawyers wonder what we can do to help the country through the crisis whilst continuing to provide valuable services to our clients”, concludes Stuart. “This is perhaps the most fundamental question and one which is answered could prove to be a defining moment in the legal industry.”

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-opioids-litigation/closely-watched-opioid-trial-in-new-york-postponed-due-to-coronavirus-idUSKBN20X2TB

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/20/new-uk-taskforce-to-crack-down-on-coronavirus-profiteers

[3] https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=1552e7ad-2bee-49c0-9912-a1151da966bc

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