The coronavirus has affected every aspect of life, from employment to housing to travel to child safety. And while some law firms have closed their doors within the last few months, others are simply adjusting their focus. In fact, some lawyers have switched focus entirely, becoming full-time “COVID attorneys.”
“When the pandemic first broke in March, there was a natural pivot for employment practices because businesses were desperate for information on how to manage their workplaces,”
says Justin Boron, a partner at the Philadelphia-based Freeman Mathis & Gary firm.
Boron’s firm—like nearly every other—hadn’t previously dealt with the legal issues arising from a pandemic, and the government administrative agencies hadn’t issued any guidance specific to COVID-19, he says. “So we had to take a deep dive into the existing regulations in similar contexts to give the best advice to clients that we could give at the time,” Boron says.
When it became clear COVID-19 was precipitating an economic crisis, Congress acted, passing a coronavirus relief bill in March 2020. A large part of the legislation focused on employee pay and benefits, so Boron’s firm tracked this to be able to advise its employer clients.
The firm formed a coronavirus task force, which Boron co-chairs, and he says there has been an uptick in small- and medium-size businesses retaining the firm to advise on COVID-19 issues, ranging from the Paycheck Protection Program to mandatory leave laws.
“The new programs and their maze of red tape have created at least a temporary market for legal advice that wasn’t there before,” Boron says.
Others have seen their practices shift for more predictable reasons. Ben Schneider, of Schneider & Stone in Skokie, Illinois, is a bankruptcy lawyer, so he’s been very busy since the start of the coronavirus. Some of his clients need help taking advantage of the changes in the bankruptcy code. Others are dealing with issues related to the sudden loss of income because of pandemic-related layoffs or furloughs and/or increased expenses (food for kids at home, additional child care for e-learning, etc.). “I am not allowed to say that I specialize,” he says. “But I would say that 100% of my practice is now COVID bankruptcy law.”
Elder law is another area that’s been fundamentally remade by COVID-19. John Dalli, a partner with Dalli & Marino in New York, says he became a COVID-19 attorney overnight. His firm had been investigating nursing home and elder abuse cases in the New York area for more than two decades, and the pandemic brought to light many of the problems plaguing the industry.
“Nursing homes throughout the state of New York were hard-hit by the virus, and our clients lost many loved ones—so overnight, my firm turned into a COVID law firm helping families navigate the issues facing them as a result of having a loved one in a nursing home struck by the coronavirus.”
To prepare, Dalli says he immediately had to learn everything he could about the virus, how it spread, and particularly how it affected nursing home residents. He created a new page on his website as a resource center for clients. Shortly after the coronavirus hit, Dalli began to speak out about the effect of the virus on nursing home residents and particularly, how the pandemic revealed the understaffing crisis that had existed in these facilities for years—which cemented his position as a COVID-19 attorney.
Consider what will happen after the pandemic is over
Some attorneys are simply using COVID-19 to jump-start their legal businesses. Kim Chan, a lawyer and founder of DocPro.com, a legal tech platform offering free legal documents and resources, launched his website at the beginning of 2020. Since March 2020, DocPro has refocused and began offering pandemic-related documents for its users, and traffic has grown more than 1,000 times since then, he says.
“We are focusing on COVID to generate more traffic and business,” Chan says. “However, COVID will be over after the vaccine is widely available, so we are using this as an opportunity to build a long-term customer base instead of having a long-lasting business based on COVID.”
Indeed, what happens after COVID-19—especially for those who made a big pivot? Barbara Barron, a labor and employment attorney, personal injury lawyer and shareholder at Texas-based MehaffyWeber who practices from the firm’s Houston and Beaumont offices, says she doesn’t consider herself to be a COVID-19 lawyer. But like most attorneys, she felt the need to get up to speed on how the pandemic has affected state and federal labor laws.
And even after the pandemic hopefully becomes a long-forgotten nightmare, she believes the virus will still be entangled within our legal system.
For example, employers now have many questions about whether vaccinations can be required—or what happens if proof of vaccination is required for airline travel, and an employee whose job duties require air travel refuses to take the vaccine.
So while David Reischer, a New York City-based employment lawyer and CEO of Legaladvice.com, says there’s no significant money to be made in marketing oneself as a COVID-19 attorney, he suggests attorneys market themselves as, for example, employment lawyers who are knowledgeable about the ever-changing pandemic.
“Merrily marketing oneself as a COVID-19 attorney is too faddish and does not highlight the full depth of actual experience,” he says.
This story was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Pandemic pivot: The coronavirus has forced many lawyers to reinvent themselves—and some have become ‘COVID-19 attorneys.’”