May 19, 2020 Article

Lawyering During Lockdown

Seven tips to manage (and enjoy!) your legal practice during this new normal.

By Jacqueline L. King and Matilda Lici

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Practicing law during a global pandemic is no easy feat. In many jurisdictions, courts and tribunals have ceased regular operations, bringing all but the most urgent litigation matters to a halt. Most of us have had to transition to an exclusively digital practice—a prospect that was previously either a pipe dream or nightmare, depending on which lawyer you asked. Days are now spent meeting with colleagues and clients through screens, signing documents electronically, and accessing files through the cloud. Many of us are navigating this new professional reality while having to care for children, living in cramped quarters, and facing financial uncertainty. The challenges we are facing are real, but there are actionable steps we can take to stay organized and alleviate the “noise” around us. Here are seven tips to manage (and even enjoy) your legal practice during this new normal. 

While we are facing new challenges, the right tools and approaches will help you stay calm, organized, and ready for the inevitable upturn.

While we are facing new challenges, the right tools and approaches will help you stay calm, organized, and ready for the inevitable upturn.

Credit: Pexels, Picjumbo.com

1. Stay Prepared

Now that many lawsuits and transactions have come to a standstill, it is easy to set things aside and “plan” to deal with them at a later time or when the courts reopen. Do not do this! Stay on top of your to-do list. Write the statement of facts for that motion that was scheduled to be heard in April but has now been postponed indefinitely. Gather your exhibits. Do all of the things that you previously had to do to prepare for trial. While it feels like we will be stuck in quarantine forever, this too shall pass. Courts will resume normal operations, files will become active again, and deadlines will arrive. Your current efforts to advance legal proceedings as much as possible tell a future judge that you are diligent about your client’s cause and considerate of the court’s time.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “You may delay, but time will not.”

2. Be Dependable, Even During Uncertain Times

Being dependable means planning and putting in the time necessary to fulfill your obligations. Extend this courtesy to the court or tribunal, your client, the lawyers with whom you work, and opposing counsel. Many of us are no longer working traditional business hours now that we are working from home. Our usual work schedule may now conflict with familial obligations. By all means, adapt your “business hours” to reflect your current day-to-day routine, but make sure that you keep your commitments. If you schedule a conference call at 1:00 p.m., ensure that someone else in your household is available to sign for deliveries or care for children during that time. If you commit to attending a meeting, ensure that you are able to be present and fully attentive. If you’ve promised to deliver work product on a certain date, meet that deadline! Being dependable means accounting for potential interruptions in advance and taking steps to minimize them.

3. Memorialize Things in Writing

Generally speaking, our non-lawyer clients have probably had to deal with only a few legal matters in their lives. You will probably have dealt with more than that this week. If you don’t have something in writing, it will be assumed that your client remembers it more distinctly than you. If a client gives you oral instructions, send your client an email confirming those instructions.

If you’ve worked out a settlement and the parties agree to iron out the details later, set out the key terms in writing now. Make sure you indicate what issues were settled and identify with clarity what issues remain outstanding. Otherwise, as time passes, you’ll find that everyone remembers the settlement differently.

Setting things down in writing is especially important during this pandemic, when the days are starting to blend into one another. Write memos to file documenting the last time you spoke with a client and what you discussed or the advice relayed to you by court staff regarding when and how to file your materials or the last steps that were taken on a transaction before it became dormant due to the pandemic.

4. Maintain Professionalism Even While Working in Your Pajamas

The practice of law is complex and challenging enough in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Stress, frustrations, and anxieties are probably at an all-time high. Ensure that these emotions do not factor into your interactions with other counsel. Do not quarrel unnecessarily. Be accommodating and gracious as we all navigate the new challenges facing our legal practice. Do not insist on delivery of materials by courier when delivery by email will work just fine. If you say something you regret, apologize sincerely!

Be strategic about your mode of communication—be that email, letter, or telephone call (in-person meetings, of course, are no longer an option for the foreseeable future). Some people are harsh and difficult via email but entirely pleasant and agreeable when you speak with them over the phone. If you have something difficult to discuss, consider the best mode of communication.

The bottom line: Do not burn bridges while in quarantine. You will eventually have to face your legal colleagues in person.

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5. Hit the RESET Button

When you are unhappy and stressed, and feel like you have lost control, it is definitely time to stop and reset. Resetting your life looks different these days. Sure, you can’t go out for coffee or lunch with a friend, but you can still enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of tea during a Zoom call. Take a break and watch a feel-good movie, sit down with a favorite book, or go out for some fresh air (while practicing physical distancing, of course). You can also sit down and write out what is bothering or frustrating you and what you can do about it.

Most importantly, recognize when it’s time to get professional help. We are living through unprecedented times, and the pandemic may be exacerbating underlying anxieties and stressors. It is OK if this all feels overwhelming. There is no shame in asking for help.

6. Make Technology Work for You

Leverage technology to help you maintain normalcy and consistency in your practice and day-to-day life. Where possible, aim to maintain face-to-face contact with people so you don’t feel like an island. We use Microsoft Teams and Zoom to hold video calls with our assistant, students, and colleagues. Stay in touch with family and friends through apps like FaceTime, Houseparty, and Skype. If you’re struggling to avoid interruptions and maintain focus, try an app like Focus Keeper, which uses the Pomodoro Technique to keep your focus for 25-minute intervals. Upload documents to the cloud so you and your colleagues can all simultaneously work on a draft. There are so many useful tools out there. It’s worth taking some time to speak to others and find out what they use and what works for them.

7. Express Gratitude

Thanking people helps you become a more grateful person, and grateful people are happier people! Expressing gratitude helps the people around you realize that you appreciate what they do.

Expressing gratitude will also change your perspective. While times are tough, there are still good things happening in the world. Develop a habit of reflecting on your “wins” each day, no matter how small.

Conclusion

These are unquestionably tragic times, but we are witnessing an outpouring of good—from the various displays of appreciation for frontline workers to people reconnecting with family, neighbors, and the world around them. The same can be true of your legal practice. While the profession is facing novel challenges, the right tools and approaches will help you stay calm, organized, and ready for the inevitable upturn. 

Jacqueline L. King is a partner and Matilda Lici is a student-at-law at Shibley Righton LLP in Toronto, Canada.


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