Brooklyn attorneys struggle with closed courts and offices during COVID-19 pandemic
Many small and medium businesses in New York City and Brooklyn have shut down in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and law firms for the most part are not immune. This has especially big implications for Brooklyn’s legal community, which is made up primarily of medium and small law firms and solo practitioners.
In the last two weeks, the Brooklyn legal community has nearly ground to a halt. With only a few exceptions, the courts are closed and law offices have been deemed non-essential. Lawyers and their staff are working from home but are very limited in what they can do.
“The coronavirus health crisis has really shown us all just how fragile life can be,” said Joseph Rosato, president of the Nathan R. Sobel Inns of Court. “Our worlds have been changed in a way we could never have imagined.
“Like many of my colleagues who also have law practices, we not only have to care for ourselves and our own family but we have a tremendous responsibility to our work family and the clients we represent. We have to make sure that our attorneys and staff are not put in harm’s way, yet we also must be able to communicate with clients and protect their interests.”
The Brooklyn Eagle interviewed nearly two dozen lawyers, including those who work in the courts and for New York City, and across the board, everyone is struggling with the new normal. Even solo practitioners in the borough are not used to the solitary nature of the past two weeks.
“Remote work is tough,” said Michele Mirman. “We have Zoom, text, a virtual office, email and of course cellphones. We have a firm database that we can access remotely, and we have had remote mediations and depositions. I try to have at least one group conference call each day with my lawyers … Nonetheless, the solitude — after being in a lively office of about 30 people — is horrible.”
The courts and clerks’ offices are closed, which means for the most part that attorneys cannot take on new clients at this time. There are exceptions in the Criminal Court and the Family Court, but even attorneys who practice in those courts are hurting.
“Business-wise, I am terrified about the impact this will have on my colleagues’ practices,” said Michael Farkas. “We all have significant overhead, and we all have families to support, mortgages to pay, etc. Most of us do not have sufficient savings to support us during a prolonged shutdown.”
Many attorneys have already laid off staff members and others fear that they won’t be able to hire them back on for months after business returns to normal.
“I went from making 13 court appearances in four counties in five different courthouses the week in the second week of March to binge-watching Netflix shows in my pajamas every day this week,” said Jimmy Lathrop.
Even attorneys who are technically capable of carrying on with their practices from home are experiencing external issues. Some are busy providing health care for relatives or making sure their children still get an education and it cuts into their ability to work. As one attorney pointed out, there are six people in his house who need to use computers for work or school, but only three computers in the house.
“Our children are continuing their education remotely and may oftentimes need assistance during the day,” said Brooklyn Bar Association officer Anthony Vaughn Jr. “We may also need to assist elderly family members and neighbors in our communities by running errands for food and other essentials.”
Attorney Daniel Antonelli said that there has been an increase in the number of people who have sought out wills as a result of the crisis, but that his office has been unable to accommodate them, since the courts are only accepting emergency filings. He said it may lead to the creation of a virtual will-signing ceremony.
“I think people are scared; they want to get their wills done; and they don’t want to wait,” Antonelli said. “The governor authorized electronic notarizations in a recent executive order, but the order doesn’t address the witnessing of wills. Two people must witness the person signing the will virtually, so there’s been a lot of discussion and speculation on the legitimacy of witness-by-video and on best practices in light of the limited information available.”
Carrie Anne Cavallo, the immediate past president of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association, said that she’s afraid for some of her clients who might slip through the cracks on certain issues pertaining to her matrimonial practice.
She explained that just before the courts shut down, she helped a client gain custody of his children. However, the courts closed before they could amend the child custody support order. So the father is now taking care of his children while being still legally obligated to pay his ex-spouse $1,700 per month in support.
“When I called the court to tell them that my client should not be paying support because custody has changed, they essentially told me ‘too bad,’ and that he will have to continue to pay child support,” Cavallo said. “Clearly that makes no sense and flies in the face of reason.”
Andrea Bonina is facing similar issues in her medical malpractice firm. She said that her office has adjusted well to working from home, but that in some cases her clients aren’t getting the help they need because the courts are closed.
“We are concerned about the current inability to conduct remote conferences with the court, as many of our medical malpractice clients are elderly or terminally ill and we are in a race against time trying to resolve their cases in their lifetime,” Bonina said.
That is not to say that Bonina or Cavallo were bashing the Office of Court Administration. This is definitely not true. They, like many attorneys, said that they were impressed by the support and flexibility that OCA was providing. However, many are still frustrated because of the nature of the pandemic and the fact that there are so many unknowns involved.
There is one thing that many want to see happen as soon as possible — they want the courts to begin to expand the types of cases that they are willing to handle remotely.
“We are hopeful that just as OCA was able to creatively fashion a way to handle Family Court and Criminal Court, that it will use its inventiveness to figure out a way for judges to still work from home on civil cases,” Mirman said.
“Perhaps they can conference cases on Skype or Zoom or some other remote video technology; perhaps they can remotely sign settlement orders that require a court’s approval, such as those on children’s cases and cases involving death; perhaps they can still read and rule on submitted motions,” she said.
Once the courts are finally able to go back to normal and businesses open again, most predict that things will not immediately go back to normal. Some law offices probably will never open again for financial reasons, or perhaps health reasons as well, but there is also the expectation that the courts will be too busy to handle everyone’s cases in a timely matter once they do reopen.
“We are going to see a tremendous backlog in court cases across Civil, Criminal, Family and Supreme Court cases as personnel struggle to reschedule motions, hearings and trials that were pending before the emergency as well as digesting the new matters commenced once the courts and county clerks reopen,” Lathrop said.
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