The past year has been an incredibly trying year for all of the members of the TIPS community. The members of the editorial board of The Brief shared in having to deal with all of the stresses and challenges presented. With the clouds appearing to have parted, clear skies on the horizon, and all the hopes and expectations that come with a return to something approximating the world we knew pre-pandemic, we wanted to take some time to catch up with the board members. We asked them how they’ve fared this past year and what positives, if any, they were able to take from the experience. We also asked if and how they think the practice of law has been altered irrevocably going forward. And we inquired as to the role they think TIPS can play in our adaptation to this new post-pandemic legal environment. The following is a condensed version of our conversations with a number of the editorial board members on these and other topics.
Now that we’re (hopefully) through the worst of it and are finding our way back into normalcy, how have you all fared through the pandemic? Has everyone been able to stay healthy?
Peter Biging: The brother of a good friend of mine died from COVID last year at age 49. What was particularly cruel was the fact that in New York City at the time, family members had virtually no opportunity to gather and mourn together. The father-in-law of one of my partners also was a victim of the pandemic. My wife and I, our daughters, and their significant others all are fine, and we feel blessed. But this was clearly a very difficult time for everyone, and we extend our deepest sympathies to everyone who lost a loved one or caught and struggled with the virus.
Nita Luis: I’m fortunate not to have been close to anyone who has been seriously sick or died from COVID-19. Knock on wood! But my husband had a variety of health issues that resulted in his hospitalization and confinement in transitional care for six weeks over the holidays when I was not allowed to see him due to COVID-19 lockouts. Luckily, I have many friends and family receptive to long phone calls.
Perrin Rynders: Nobody in my family has been diagnosed with COVID-19, but I wonder who might have gotten it. There was one evening, exactly a week after I had flown last May to help a son travel home, when I thought I must have contracted the disease. The next day I felt fine, though. I thought, should I get tested? Then I thought, would it matter? I decided to quarantine myself, pretty much as I had been doing anyway (except for the one-day trip).
Jonathan Walton: Thankfully, we have done pretty well. The biggest change is that we moved from the city (Chicago) to the suburbs. The kids are very happy about that because they are closer to the grandmas and there are parks everywhere.
Dale Weppner: I actually feel as if I fared pretty well. I kept to a fairly routine workout regimen thanks to my timely purchase of a Peloton prior to the start of the pandemic and was rehabbing from knee surgery, so I feel my fitness level actually increased. On the flip side, my afternoon new and interesting “drink of the day” during the initial quarantine perhaps worked against that goal.
Agnes Wilewicz: The pandemic certainly took its toll. It was a roller coaster ride of a year. However, to stay healthy, I splurged and bought the elliptical of my dreams in the fall, and that really helped.
John Browning: Fortunately, everyone in the Browning family made it through all right and were very happy when we were able to get the vaccine.
What did you do to find ways to adjust to and deal with the stresses and other challenges presented during life in a pandemic?
Perrin Rynders: There were the normal adjustments, of course, like finally setting up a home office and getting used to doing workouts on the back porch (definitely more enjoyable during the summer than the winter). And my wife and I streamed a lot more shows. Early on, colleagues and I collaborated to make a song parody to entertain the rest of our firm: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tfAdKjJQVE.
John Browning: I played more golf and improved my handicap by five strokes! So at least I have something positive to take from all this.
Agnes Wilewicz: My daughter and I took up a variety of hobbies and crafts that we had always wanted to do but never had the time. We did large-scale paint-by-numbers, we learned how to make candles and soap, and my daughter learned how to make jewelry.
Peter Biging: My wife’s company had a walking competition, dividing groups in her legal department into teams and counting up how many miles everyone walked each week, and spouses’ totals were included. So we ended up taking lots of really long walks with the “granddog.”
Nita Luis: I must admit I became somewhat addicted to Facebook, though it has enabled me to reconnect and stay in touch with old friends and former coworkers. I’ve also enjoyed, but been overwhelmed by, the vast array of educational Zoom offerings from colleges, museums, nonprofit organizations, etc. It’s great to have them in retirement, but it’s hard to match the intellectual stimulation of working.
Brooks Magratten: Wine. Lots of wine.
Elizabeth Sackett: I took up meditation. I am definitely a beginner and clearly have a long way to go. But when I let go of everything for those seconds or a minute or two during the guided meditation, it helps lessen the constant stress.
Jonathan Walton: I found other ways to stay connected to friends and family, like texting and Zoom.
Dale Weppner: Same answer as Jonathan. I also made it a point to get out of the house, whether that be to walk the dog around the block, sit on the patio and enjoy some sunshine and fresh air while enjoying a refreshing beverage, or just driving around. I also played a lot of golf. Anything to escape my home office.
Did you take on any projects or set any personal objectives? If so, what did you do? How did it go?
Brooks Magratten: I tried to lose weight, but failed miserably.
Perrin Rynders: After a few months of working every day just steps from the kitchen, I went on a diet. My wife and I strictly adhered to the tenets of Whole30 in July. That was enough to eliminate the dreaded COVID 19 (pounds).
Elizabeth Sackett: We painted, a lot. Bedrooms, the living room, and the kitchen is next. We bought a jigsaw puzzle table and spent hours puzzling when it was cold with no snow.
Peter Biging: I did a lot of painting around the house as well. It started in the downstairs bathroom, when I decided to paint the walls. When I finished, I looked at the ceiling and said, “The ceiling looks awful.” When I finished the ceiling, the doors and baseboards looked terrible. I ended up taking apart the cabinets and painting them too. It was kind of like the song about the old lady that swallowed a fly.
Dale Weppner: I didn’t do anything really specific in terms of projects. Like Peter, I did make a goal of knocking out some home projects and ended up in a full bathroom remodel. It turned out great.
Agnes Wilewicz: I tried my hand at decluttering. I don’t have a particularly cluttered house, but I do own more books than I can count (or should admit), so I tried to purge some of those. It did not go well. I was able to part with a handful, donating them to our local Goodwill, and that was reluctantly. Ultimately, I sent a box or two down to my mother and considered the job accomplished.
Raise your hand if you became a Peloton person. If so, who’s your favorite trainer?
John Browning: Nope. No Peloton for me.
Jonathan Walton: No. I’m with Browning.
Agnes Wilewicz: Nope! Precor ellipticals all the way.
Elizabeth Sackett: Hand raised! I waited nearly three months for it to arrive, but it has been so helpful with no spin classes open for much of the year. It’s not the same as a class, but I’ll take it. And, I can ride while attending CLEs and company-wide meetings. My favorite trainer is Sam Yo.
Dale Weppner: I became a Peloton person pre-pandemic. My favorite trainers are Emma Lovewell and Kendall Toole.
Did you take up residence anywhere else at any point? If so, where did you go, and what did you think of the experience?
Dale Weppner: Nope.
Agnes Wilewicz: Nope; I didn’t leave the house for months.
Brooks Magratten: We rented a lake cottage in New Hampshire, discarded masks, turned off electronics, and had a wonderful time.
Perrin Rynders: No, but we live on an inland lake, and the flexibility that comes with working at home meant I could take a break when our retired neighbor declared it was time for a pontoon ride and dip out in the lake.
Elizabeth Sackett: I wish I did, but did not. School grounded me. If I could have, I would have gone to the mountains. Maybe I would have gone west to explore the mountains and experience Wyoming or Montana. I settled for a few week/weekend getaways to a remote part of Vermont.
Jonathan Walton: Yes. We moved from the city to the suburbs. I do not think we would have made this decision otherwise, or at least not for a while, but we are happy with it. Life with kids is much easier in the suburbs.
Peter Biging: My wife and I spent some time on Cape Cod, but there were lengthy periods where New Yorkers were most definitely not exactly people anyone was looking to see drive into their state, and then there were other times when the virus seemed to really be exploding on the Cape as well. The few times we were able to get out to the Cape were wonderful though. It was a revelation to have the quality of life location be your home base once in a while.
How was the adjustment to a largely remote work experience for you?
John Browning: Not great. I love my family, but I was ready to get back into the office.
Brooks Magratten: I never left the office. Most others did. The office actually became a COVID-safe environment. This past year has been my most productive in a long while.
Perrin Rynders: It was relatively easy for me, personally, especially once we boosted our internet speed. Eliminating the commute was wonderful.
Elizabeth Sackett: So many changes. My company can do everything remotely, so there was very little impact on my job except for Zoom/Teams fatigue and a bad back from sitting so much. The best adjustment was the elimination of my two-plus-hour commute every day. I love sleeping later, having time in the morning to meditate and to think about my day before jumping right in. I also have had so much more time with my kids and so many more family meals with no sports and no commute. I do miss Audible, though, my companion on the long drive. I am not nearly as well “read” this year.
Jonathan Walton: I think it’s great. While I miss the downtime of a commute and my office friendships, it is really nice to have more time around the family. It is also nice to not have to get dressed every day and to get work done more on my own schedule. I am grateful that technology is at the point where you do not need to be in an office.
Agnes Wilewicz: I’ve always liked working from home (fewer distractions, counterintuitively). So, the adjustment was actually a pleasure. The days did start to blend together at one point, and I lost the distinction between a workday and the weekend, but apart from that I found it was actually a very productive time.
Dale Weppner: I found I simply was not as productive from home. I actually began coming into the office most days around mid-May.
Did you participate in remote depositions, oral arguments, mediations, and/or trials? If so, were there any particular positives or negatives you drew from your experiences?
John Browning: I find it very difficult to examine a witness with documents virtually. I have to have the court reporter deliver documents to the witness before we proceed, which takes a lot more time to prepare for. I think we’ll find out that depositions are okay for routine fact witnesses, but when it comes to complex litigation, clients will say they prefer the cost savings but in the end ask us to go back to an in-person environment.
Peter Biging: I agree with what John said about depositions. Also, I had one deposition where I was certain the witness was being coached by his attorney off-screen (he kept looking to his right before answering questions). That was extremely frustrating on multiple levels. But I felt that witness prep didn’t suffer much from meeting virtually rather than in person, and certain depositions were fine being performed remotely.
Brooks Magratten: Zoom turned out to be a surprisingly easy and effective way to conduct hearings, conferences, and mediations from my perspective.
Agnes Wilewicz: Oral arguments work fairly well remotely; however, I do feel like something is lost when you are not in the same room with the judge and your opponent. Moreover, when connectivity or technology issues get in the way, it can be a frustrating experience. Similarly, something is lost in terms of remote depositions, and I worry about opposing counsel coaching witnesses. But, clients love the decreased costs and judges love the efficiency, so the trend here is likely to continue.
Perrin Rynders: One very positive aspect of taking depositions, arguing cases, and participating in mediations virtually is making litigation more time-effective. There is no travel. Downtime during mediation can be spent doing something productive. In that respect, I think lawyers can get more done while costing their clients less money. On the other hand, nonverbal communication is harder, the importance of which is all the more clear.
Jonathan Walton: The downside of remote mediations is that you get less time with the client (such as a lunch or dinner), but there is plenty of downtime to hang out remotely. I have participated in remote depositions and think they are better in person. That said, all of this is a benefit to the client, who does not need to pay for travel and related costs.
Dale Weppner: All of the above. I do not mind remote depositions or oral arguments, within limits. I think there are some depositions that are simply too important (i.e., party witnesses and experts), where an in-person presence is advantageous or necessary. As to mediations, I did one Zoom mediation, and it was an absolute disaster. Mediations should be in person, where the parties are compelled to convene at the same location in front of an experienced mediator.
What was the most embarrassing, funny, or interesting thing that you experienced during a Zoom deposition or hearing?
Agnes Wilewicz: Fortunately, nothing! No accidental cat faces here. I used Skype and Zoom regularly for years pre-pandemic, so I was very lucky that those were commonly the platforms that were utilized.
Dale Weppner: Nothing really comes to mind other than watching some people trying to navigate technology they were clearly not familiar with.
John Browning: In one case, I observed opposing counsel furiously putting on a coat (couldn’t find his tie) after he signed in, only to find out that the judge and all other lawyers were in coat and tie sitting at their dining room tables. It didn’t matter, as the judge granted our opposing counsel the relief he wanted anyway (even without his tie!).
Perrin Rynders: I don’t think I made any huge gaffes. I did have a friend, who was my opposing counsel in a case, forget to bring a tie to his office the day we had a Zoom hearing. He sat very close to the camera and kept everything below his Adam’s apple out of view. Also, when Zoom hearings were still very new, a judge came on and said, “All rise!” Then he burst into laughter at the thought of counsel not knowing how to hide the fact that they were wearing jeans or sweatpants below their coats and ties. Those were the days, when such jokes were still fresh.
Where was the strangest place or set of circumstances from which you attended a virtual hearing?
Perrin Rynders: Nothing too strange. Just a hotel room. Wearing a swimsuit.
Dale Weppner: Since we were on lockdown, it was always from my home or real office.
Agnes Wilewicz: My daughter’s bedroom, when the internet in mine turned spotty and I had a summary judgment oral argument.
What was your favorite binge-worthy show that you watched during the pandemic?
Nita Luis: We binge-watched the trial of former police officer Chauvin and his conviction for killing George Floyd in our city and were absorbed in following the Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, which hopefully will have lasting effects. We found new appreciation for the many wonderful shows on public television and for having more time to read the local daily newspaper and do its crossword puzzles.
John Browning: Yellowstone and The Crown.
Brooks Magratten: Atlantic Crossing on PBS.
Agnes Wilewicz: Peaky Blinders.
Perrin Rynders: That is a tough question. My wife and I really enjoyed Ozark, The Queen’s Gambit, Downton Abbey, and Schitt’s Creek. Yes, we were mostly making up for lost time.
Elizabeth Sackett: The Crown was hard to stop. With my teenagers, we binged The Office and watched all the Marvel movies in chronological order (twice).
Jonathan Walton: I just watched Made for Love on HBO, and it was pretty entertaining.
Dale Weppner: Ozark, Narcos, and Schitt’s Creek.
Peter Biging: It’s not for everyone, but I absolutely loved Babylon Berlin. My wife was not as fond of it as me, but she stuck with me through it. We both loved Call My Agent!
Is there a particular book you read during the pandemic that you would recommend to others? If so, what is it, and what about it stands out for you?
Brooks Magratten: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Just when you begin to wallow in COVID woes, the book shows how incredibly difficult it was living in London and Berlin during World War II. The inconveniences of a COVID quarantine pale in comparison.
Peter Biging: My wife read that one as well, Brooks, and she shares your enthusiasm for it. I ended up reading a couple of Ben Macintyre books about spies, and both were terrific: A Spy Among Friends and Agent Sonya.
Elizabeth Sackett: I enjoy reading cookbooks. Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid was a fascinating exploration of the food and the people of the lower Mekong river (southern China, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam). The recipes carried me through the fall and early winter months.
Agnes Wilewicz: John Barry’s The Great Influenza, actually. I wanted some historical context for pandemics/epidemics, and this book really brought out the parallels between the 1918 pandemic and this one. It also discussed the fact that we have actually had numerous pandemics in the years since, as well as the history of medicine in America. For something a tad lighter, I’ve recently been going through the Elin Hilderbrand books. Nice, easy beach reads that are actually great for any time of the year, should one need a weekend escape without leaving the house.
What was the first “normal” thing you did after you felt safe enough to start doing normal things again?
Agnes Wilewicz: Set foot in a grocery store. We had stocked up very early and then had everything delivered for a long time, so entering a store for the first time in months was an overwhelming and mildly surreal experience.
Nita Luis: The pandemic caused cancellation or postponement of 12 trips for us and 12 sets of season tickets to sports and arts we couldn’t use. As we move toward normalcy, we’ve been able to attend a few Minnesota Wild hockey games and Minnesota Timberwolves basketball games. Largely using credits from cancellations, we’ve booked six international trips for 2022—but one has already been canceled and one moved to several months later with a significantly changed itinerary.
Perrin Rynders: We kept a few “normal” things in our routine to maintain our sanity. There was another couple in our neighborhood who were part of our bubble. We would take turns making dinner each weekend, or at least having happy hour.
Elizabeth Sackett: I went to visit a dear friend in a different state.
Jonathan Walton: We celebrated our anniversary at a nice restaurant. It was fantastic!
Dale Weppner: I went on my annual golf trip with friends.
Peter Biging: Two weeks to the day after we received our second dose of the Moderna vaccine, my wife and I took a road trip to Nashville to visit our eldest daughter and her husband. We drove because we were still concerned about air travel. Lonnnng drive, but it was great to see her in person again after so long. Oh yeah, her husband too.
What do you think has changed for good in regard to your work life/home life going forward, even as we move toward a return to normalcy?
Brooks Magratten: I have a much deeper and more meaningful relationship with Netflix. Oh, and with my wife too.
Jonathan Walton: The ability to work from home is great. I think there is more of a belief at the firm that people can get their work done even when they are not at the office.
Perrin Rynders: Interpersonal connections are invaluable, and I will start working in the office much more frequently. But I will probably work more from home, or from my cottage, or from some exotic travel destination. And I will avoid the morning and evening rush hours as much as possible. I enjoy starting my day early in the home office, and I can envision rolling into the office mid-morning when I have meetings. Traveling across the state or even across town for a simple scheduling conference or discovery motion is hopefully a thing of the past.
Elizabeth Sackett: I will not return to work more than three days a week in the office, and hopefully only two days a week. The saved time is precious, and I will try to guard that going forward.
Peter Biging: I really didn’t miss the commute either. I remember one day there was a big midweek snowstorm, which for me typically meant I was up at dawn shoveling snow so I could drive to the train station, then park in an outdoor lot, all the while knowing I would have to come back on a crowded train at some off-hour and return to a car I had to dig out of the snow at the station parking lot, and then drive home to a driveway and sidewalk that had to be shoveled out as well. In this instance, however, I just worked at home until the snow let up and shoveled once. Once! I think I’m definitely going to be working from home a couple of days a week from now on, whenever possible. I’d say this would likely be a change for good for me.
Dale Weppner: Changed for the good or for good? I think going forward we will see more clients forgoing in-person meetings and business travel and opting for Zoom—which is good in many ways but not in all instances, as I previously mentioned.
What impacts do you see being felt by the legal profession generally, and how do you think that will impact your area of practice specifically?
Brooks Magratten: Echoing Dale’s comment, I believe more aspects of the practice will occur remotely or virtually, long after the pandemic.
Perrin Rynders: There will be less travel, and judges are going to be much more open to conference calls and Zoom meetings, so also less exposure to metal detectors. The ability to work virtually is changing how my law firm envisions the use of office space (fewer and smaller offices) and what is needed to make an office fully functional (more technology).
Peter Biging: I think our firm is looking at this like Perrin’s is. As various offices around the country come off lease, we’re definitely going to look hard at how much space we really need. The cost savings, especially in major metropolitan areas where rents can be sky-high, could have potentially dynamic impacts on firm profitability.
Dale Weppner: I really haven’t thought through what impact COVID generally may have on the profession. I think we will see even the stodgiest of firms moving to a more remote work environment or at least great flexibility. As to litigation specifically, I think we are going to see more remote depositions and hearings as clients and the courts determine they can better control costs and their schedules, respectively.
Agnes Wilewicz: Certainly, we’ll see the impact of more and more people working from home and the logistics of that. Many people transitioned to permanent WFH, and some even moved during the pandemic. Going forward, we will have to manage how firms handle that, how courts will accommodate remote attendance at hearings, and whether clients will expect different services (and costs) as a result.
Frankly, I see the pandemic as a blip in history that just expedited trends that were already happening. People in the legal industry were previously reluctant to adapt to technology and were not fans of working from home, and the courts preferred in-person appearances over telephonic conferences. Yet the technology was starting to drive change, clients wanted more efficiencies, and many workers wanted to, but were not permitted to, work from home. Now, we basically were able to fast-forward a few years.
How do you feel your involvement in TIPS has benefited you through this ordeal?
Dale Weppner: TIPS has always been one of my go-to sanity checks as I have the opportunity to interact with other lawyers and professionals across the country who may be experiencing the very same issues I am dealing with. COVID was no exception.
John Browning: I enjoyed the CLEs, business meetings, and, most importantly, the after-hour virtual cocktail and online poker, seeing friends and telling stories.
Agnes Wilewicz: Fortunately, the TIPS community has stayed very active throughout this whole time. It has provided wonderful networking and social experiences, despite the distance and barriers in the way. It has really been uplifting to be able to continue to connect with people, even when we could not travel to see one another.
Nita Luis: Throughout the pandemic, TIPS has been important to me in providing intellectual stimulation, meaningful engagement, and support from the many friends I’ve made through the many TIPS meetings I’ve attended since the 1980s. TIPS taught me I could walk into a roomful of strangers and walk out with friends!
Peter Biging: Ditto Agnes and Nita! Well said.
Jonathan Walton: It has been great to have my friends from the Leadership Academy.
Brooks Magratten: TIPS delivers a sense of connectedness, even to those working in relative isolation.
Perrin Rynders: TIPS involvement has usually involved travel, and I’m looking forward to in-person meetings and the social interaction that comes with them. But staying involved has provided more ways to connect with people, even if virtually.
Elizabeth Sackett: It has been a challenging year for The Brief editorial board. With no CLEs and few unsolicited articles, the board has worked overtime to produce this quarterly magazine. We have had many more (Zoom) meetings than usual, which I think has brought board members a little closer, more familiar with each other. And I very much appreciate everyone’s commitment to TIPS and The Brief.
With all the changes the pandemic has wrought on the legal world, where do you see TIPS fitting in now, and why do you believe it remains so relevant going forward?
Perrin Rynders: There must be a famous adage about how being deprived of something makes that thing more desired—oh yeah, absence makes the heart grow fonder. TIPS is a lot of things, like being a resource for critical information. But it is also a place for people to build valuable relationships for mutual support and helpful referrals. TIPS will be there for us when life returns to normal, and for everyone who has been involved in the past that will be part of life returning to normal.
Elizabeth Sackett: I see a more flexible future for TIPS. One that will no doubt appreciate the in-person meetings more than ever and be willing to keep up virtual engagement among the membership to meet people where they are and allow more participation.
Brooks Magratten: There will be greater competition among bar groups for members going forward. In the future, TIPS will be a smaller organization with a smaller budget. We must learn to make do with less.
Jonathan Walton: TIPS will definitely remain relevant. I think TIPS can offer guidance for attorneys as they navigate the new world.
Peter Biging: I think TIPS is more relevant than ever in my mind. Being in litigation, for many years I viewed other lawyers as largely falling into two categories: adversaries in court or competitors for business. Once I became more active in TIPS, I found that the joy of working cooperatively with others to gain better knowledge and insights about critical areas of legal practice we jointly work in was something I truly cherished. And I made some deep and lasting friendships. TIPS has helped me be a better lawyer, while at the same time providing an incredibly supportive, collegial atmosphere. I agree that with the ever-expanding ability to obtain CLE online and the natural institutional desire to limit travel costs, there will be some challenging times for TIPS as for all organizations of this type. But I believe we will need organizations like this more than ever going forward.
Agnes Wilewicz: I agree with Peter on this. I think that TIPS’s role is more important than ever, as the legal world has gotten smaller and even more connected than before. It still remains a seminal and preeminent international legal industry organization, replete with outstanding educational programming and networking opportunities. The ABA generally, but TIPS in particular, has navigated the pandemic exceptionally well and has been able to pivot and continue to provide a platform for the industry, despite extraordinary challenges.
Dale Weppner: Agreed.
With hopes that you have all been able to get through the pandemic year without too much lost, and hopefully with something gained, we at the editorial board for The Brief wish everyone all the best going forward. We look forward to seeing each other in person at future TIPS events. In the meantime, if you have interesting stories to tell regarding your legal/personal life in the pandemic, please feel free to send an email to Elizabeth Sackett, Editor in Chief, at [email protected]; and copy Melissa Vasich, Managing Editor, at [email protected]. If there is enough interest, we’ll publish a “Letters to the Editor” section with some of the more interesting emails.