Interview with Clay J. Countryman
by Alan S. Goldberg, Goulston & Storrs, Washington, DC
Clay Countryman is a partner with Kean Miller Hawthorne D'Armond McCowan & Jarman LLP, the largest law firm in the Capital Region of Louisiana. With two offices in Baton Rouge as well as offices in New Orleans, Lake Charles, and Plaquemine, Louisiana, Clay and Kean Miller face the daunting challenge of addressing the needs of employees, clients, and local communities during the post-Katrina and Rita period. Clay earned his B.B.A. from the University of Oklahoma and his J.D. from Loyola University of New Orleans and has practiced law since 1994. During 2002 to 2004, Clay Countryman was the American Bar Association Young Lawyer Division's Representative to the Council of the ABA Health Law Section.
Alan S. Goldberg: Good afternoon Clay. Thank you for taking the time today to share with us your experiences and thoughts regarding the past several weeks in Louisiana. But first of all, I hope you and your wife and three daughters are well.
Clay Countryman: Yes Alan, we’re doing fine now, and we’re very fortunate to have survived with our health. We’re still living in our Baton Rouge home and my law office is open for business.
ASG: Getting down to business, Clay, these past weeks surely have been among the most challenging any lawyer can experience. Would you please tell us about the several days before and immediately after hurricane Katrina?
CC: My first thoughts were about taking care of my family and we were lucky to be able to get through the hurricane days better than many others. At work, I did a lot of moving of papers and other things typically found in a law office. Getting things away from walls and windows came first, and there is never enough time to do it all. I was able to take a box of files with me as I left to go home, and I hoped that my computer at home would work. Fortunately, our law firm maintains an off-site backup server, and so our work product was safe throughout the storms and now as well.
ASG: What about communications, Clay: could you and your colleagues and clients talk with each other or send eMails back and forth during the storms?
CC: The biggest issue, I learned, was lack of communication. Cellular telephones stopped working, and even today we are having some troubles with land line telephones. During Katrina, there was no telephone communication available and electricity was off. But surprisingly, when we had electricity again, eMail over the Internet always worked in our office. Fortunately, our Baton Rouge office did not lose power. We had anxiety about finding out who in our firm was where and hopefully well. For several days after Katrina had moved on, we were unable to locate some of my colleagues and office staff. One of my partners from our New Orleans office contacted us by eMail from Colorado three days after Katrina and another partner eMailed us from Florida, and we were all so pleased to learn that they were okay.
ASG: When it came time to get back to business, what was happening, Clay?
CC: Our Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, Louisiana offices were open the day after Katrina went through our area. Our Lake Charles, Louisiana office is now temporarily closed from Hurricane Rita. Our first job was to do whatever we could to assure the health and safety of everyone affiliated with our law firm, and soon thereafter we began evaluating how best to serve our clients and to support community efforts to deal with the storm’s aftermath. At our office meetings, we tried to set priorities and to review them in order to be sure our focus was good and our performance responsive to what was best for everyone who depends on us.
ASG: Would you tell us about how clients tried to deal with all of this, please?
CC: Our clients were affected differently depending on whether they were in the New Orleans area or located elsewhere. For our clients with locations in the New Orleans area, their immediate concerns were locating employees and then deciding where to establish a temporary office. Most of our law firm’s healthcare clients are healthcare providers. At first, just trying to get in touch with clients was hard, because of the interruptions in telephone and other services. I remember one physician practice administrator who was able to come to my office and was in tears. The first thing we did was to make a list of priorities and realities. The stress level has also affected many of our clients in making decisions. Much of the work that unfolded at first was in the areas of employee paychecks and how to deal with financial issues, real estate including landlord-tenant difficulties, and health and other insurance concerns. Business interruption insurance issues are significant, as are coverage issues involving the question whether casualty policies provide coverage for wind, water, mold, and other types of claims that some insurers may believe are distinguishable but that insureds likely will assume are one and the same.
ASG: Clay, how did the organized bar react to the many challenges?
CC: The Baton Rouge bar association is very active in trying to match needy clients with attorneys who can help them, and lawyers here have done the best they can to help out colleagues from New Orleans and elsewhere who find themselves in Baton Rouge and need a place to sit, to talk, and to try to help clients. Another big challenge has been credentialing for healthcare workers. There has been a tremendous number of providers that came to Louisiana to try to help. Although there have been licensure and other waivers of the usual rules restricting who can practice the healthcare professions in our state, the need to provide some evidence of who someone is and what licensure evidence is available to prove competence is something that no doubt frustrated a lot of people. I have heard that some doctors were turned away because their identification did not meet the requirements of local authorities.
ASG: Now what about HIPAA and other privacy rule protections, Clay? What has been your experience thus far regarding adherence to privacy and confidentiality requirements under state and federal law?
CC: Both because of opportunities under federal law for exceptions in emergencies and because of the emergency situation generally, care and treatment needs seem to have overwhelmed any notion of privacy protections being more important than taking care of sick and injured people. We haven’t seen the interruption in electricity service become an impediment to delivery of healthcare insofar as lack of access to electronic health records is concerned, but that may turn out to have been a problem for those not having backup electricity generating equipment or battery power.
ASG: Clay, looking to the future and trying to plan for emergencies caused by weather and other catastrophes, what would be on your list of “must do” requirements to avoid serious interruptions in the ability of a law firm to do business?
CC: We learned that things happen very fast and that we don’t have a lot of time to make up for whatever we might not have done but should have done. So, it’s important to have adequate off-site storage of electronic and paper data. Those law firms in the New Orleans area that didn’t have such storage are really challenged now. In addition, it is critical to think about where a law firm’s personnel can temporarily set up offices during any period in which the law firm’s offices are not able to be used. Some New Orleans law firms temporarily leased space here in Baton Rouge, but I have heard of at least one instance in which a landlord is trying to “break” a temporary occupancy arrangement with a law firm in order to lease space more profitably to some other tenant. Communications plans are paramount: how will people find each other and how will arrangement be made to meet and set priorities, and how will clients be contacted? We found that finding everyone and knowing who needed help were difficult challenges. We’re fortunate in that many kind people in the American Bar Association and many others as well have tried to help everyone here by providing information, resources, and encouragement. We’re appreciative of being remembered and it’s good to know that so many kind people care about helping other people.
ASG: What about litigation and closings?
CC: Things just froze in place, Alan. Everything stopped, and now we have to put everything back together. Trials were interrupted, closings were cancelled, and hopefully no one was prejudiced. But there were no alternatives: when the lights go off and the telephones stop working and everyone leaves, that’s pretty much the end of the practice of law as usual.
ASG: Clay, I know you have a lot to do before the weekend begins, so I have just one more question. Would there be one thing that stands out most of all in your mind about this hopefully once in a lifetime experience that interfered with the personal and professional lives of so many?
CC: Trying to anticipate the unexpected is so difficult. We did the best we could, but when the storms came, the best plans somehow seemed so inadequate. Eventually, because of our planning efforts, things worked out much better than they might have otherwise, and I am so grateful that my family and I were able to survive in good health and that we are be able to continue living in our home, even as we plan to move to a new one.
ASG: Thank you Clay for talking with us today. Please know that your many friends and colleagues wish you well and we look forward to things getting as close to back to normal as possible, as soon as possible.
[Editorial Note -- Some portions of this interview have been edited and reformatted for clarity. Nothing contained in this interview is anything other than the personal commentary of each of those engaged in the dialogue set forth above, and neither of them is speaking for or in behalf of any employer, client, association, or other entity or group with which either is affiliated.]