By Scott Merrill and Kathie Ragsdale
With courts closed, except for emergency orders and social distancing keeping clients from their doors, New Hampshire attorneys from north to south with solo or small practices are getting creative to cope with limits imposed by the corona virus pandemic.
Many are working remotely, rotating in-office hours with colleagues, and turning to virtual online meetings, telephonic conferences and email to conduct business.
Some report a decline in work, especially with regard to new clients, while others say their workload is stable. Some areas, like business law, are actually seeing an increase in traffic as employers and nonprofits struggle with the ramifications of mass unemployment and the intricacies of federal stimulus plans.
All agree the times are strange and unpredictable at the moment.
“It’s really weird,” says John Riff, a solo practitioner with offices in Lancaster.
“I feel like I’m stuck in ‘Groundhog Day,’” he adds, referring to the comic fantasy film in which a TV weatherman relives the same day over and over. “Every day is the same. It’s the longest Sunday ever. I miss the interaction with clients. I miss seeing my staff every day. It’s a little lonely.”
Riff’s office remains open, but the staff works in shifts. His paralegal comes in early and leaves before his arrival, and his legal assistant works while he is out to lunch. Any paper-signing that needs to be done is accomplished in the parking lot, via clipboard. Riff also plans to use the videoconferencing platform Zoom for future meetings.
Jack McCormack began his practice on Main Street in Ashland over 40 years ago. He focuses largely on real estate and conveyancing, with a focus on commercial assets and has been general counsel to the Common Man restaurants since 1977.
Because of his work in commercial assets McCormack says he has not seen a slowdown in the amount of work coming into his office. The major difference so far, he says, is abiding by social distancing rules at his office as well as understanding the fears and needs of his clients.
“It’s been odd, as staff is segregated and they work different hours to the greatest extent possible,” he said. “It has affected closings and the execution of documents, as we do not allow access to the office to those other than employees.”
Asked whether his firm has suffered financially, McCormack explained that his current income is largely based on work that was being performed prior to the state of emergency.
“Our financial pain will occur later,” he said.
McCormack’s primary concerns, at this time, are to take care of his staff and whether clients will return.
“I fear that many smaller clients who were not overly capitalized will not be able to weather the storm.”
Social distancing rules have also been implemented by the firm McCandless & Nicholson, in Concord. Roy McCandless, says the two paralegals, secretary, business manager and two attorneys in his office either work remotely or limit themselves to two or three in the office at one time. No in-person meetings with clients are being conducted.
Despite the lack of court hearings, “We’re certainly able to keep working on discovery and negotiating with adjusters and communicating with clients by phone or email, and keep working on cases,” he says.
While most parties are willing to hold off on in-person proceedings, he says that the firm is set up to do remote depositions if they want to do so.
At the Hopkinton firm Greenblott & O’Rourke, three attorneys work at home, and one in the office. Clients rarely come in, but when they must visit to sign documents, “We literally have it set up in the office for them to sign and leave,” says Seth Greenblott. “We try to make it so people aren’t interacting as much as possible.”
He and James O’Rourke started their firm four years ago with an eye toward remote work ability, Greenblott notes, and Zoom has been a part of their practice from the beginning and remains in use now.
Marianne Rousseau, senior partner in the Concord firm Rousseau Law & Mediation, provides detailed directions for other lawyers on her website on how remote mediation can be conducted using Zoom.
“It actually works pretty well,” she says. “We are seeing clients via Zoom and it’s working better than I expected it to.”
She and another attorney in the firm continue to work in the office, while a third attorney and a paralegal work remotely.
But remote communication has its drawbacks, Rousseau notes.
Elderly clients sometimes lack internet, and Rousseau consults with them by phone.
“They don’t like that at all,” she says. “They like to come in here and chat over coffee.”
Likewise, she adds that “telephonic hearings are a challenge.”
“When you’re figuring out a restraining order on the phone, it’s really hard to tell who’s telling the truth when you can’t see them. It’s hard to judge their veracity,” she says.
She is also concerned about divorced parents who might risk contempt of court charges by refusing to share children with their former spouses out of fear it might be unsafe during the pandemic.
“I think we have to tell them what the courts are saying, that the parenting plan is the parenting plan,” she says. “I advise an alternative like Skype, so the kids aren’t in the middle.”
O’Rourke, whose practice also includes family law, explained that court closures make it difficult for clients who disagree in a civil action, if their complaints don’t rise to the level of an emergency from the court’s perspective.
“If people aren’t cooperating, they’re going to pay for it when they (the courts) get back,” he says.
Yet another challenge is anticipating how the courts will prioritize the backlog of cases when they do re-open.
“The question of how things get rescheduled by the courts is really on a lot of lawyers’ minds,” says Greenblott. “Is your trial in three months or a year and a half? More than anything, that information would make a big difference to law firms.”
Unlike McCormack’s concern about whether business will return, some practitioners anticipate that lawyers may not only be dealing with a backlog, but with a flood of new business once things normalize.
“It’s kind of like water building up behind a weak dam,” says Riff. “Once this thing gets ready to go, I think we’re going to be inundated with stuff… I do a lot of evictions and foreclosures and a lot of evictions have been stayed. I think there’s going to be a flood of evictions and foreclosures.”
For some, the pandemic is already boosting business.
“I would say we’re as busy as we ever are,” says Greenblott. “There may be a drop-off in new clients but our existing clients have needed a lot of help navigating all this. Estate clients suddenly want to get that done now. Business clients need help.”
However, McCandless has seen a decline in personal injury work.
“I do a lot of work with nonprofits and I’m getting a lot of calls regarding the funding available to help them survive in the meantime,” he says. “A lot of folks involved in nonprofits also have small businesses that otherwise wouldn’t qualify for things like unemployment so they are turning to us.”
Churches, religious organizations and independent contractors who previously were ineligible for unemployment are among others reaching out for help, he adds.
Many say the limitations imposed by the pandemic has had the serendipitous consequence of personalizing legal proceedings.
“We’re all Zooming into each other’s homes and the usual situations now include that my three-year-old may run in at any given moment and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” says Greenblott.
His partner, O’Rourke, says their firm has always had a culture of working collaboratively with other lawyers but that he now sees a “heightened level of cooperation” everywhere.
“That’s why it’s important to have a good relationship with opposing counsel and prosecutors because these are times when you need to act on that good will,” he says.
Likewise, McCandless says he regularly gets “sincere inquiries” about how he is doing when in touch with other practitioners.
“The collegiality is really encouraging,” he says. “It has confirmed the decision I made 30 years ago to stay in New England and not go to New York.”
Back in the north country Tom Pancoast has been an attorney with a solo practice in Littleton for nearly 50 years. He runs his School Street office out of his home, a yellow Victorian that overlooks Mount Lafayette, as well as empty store fronts on Main Street.
Unlike some of the other attorneys around the state who are adapting to the electronic processing of cases, Pancoast says that he would not be going electronic. “Not me, I’m not doing it.”
Pancoast, who recently turned 75, compared what is happening today to the idea of the Black Swan, (a rare, and once mythological bird) made popular by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s, “Black Swan Theory.” Taleb argues that there are certain “outlier” events that defy logical predictions throughout history.
Pancoast commented on the difficult times ahead for small firms and local businesses.
“It’s going to be challenging for solo practices and boutique firms,” he says, but added that he is not overly worried at present about his own practice.
“When I was younger, I had a real office and I thought about getting out,” he says, “But being a lawyer becomes a part of your identity. I’ve had an interesting stream of clients over the years, people I’ve known for decades and they keep popping up.”
Pancoast reflected on the differences between attorney’s who specialize their practices today versus his experience as a lawyer with a general practice in the northern part of the state. He is concerned about the ripples the pandemic is creating in the legal world.
“Having been in business so long in the north country…we did everything, “ he says. “Misdemeanor assault, restraining orders, divorce proceedings. But for those people who depend on other business, I don’t know right now how they will recover. Will the customers come back? I’m going to keep going but what’s happening now changes the question from when to retire to when to open up again.”
For Jesse Friedman and John Bresaw, who opened their firm, Friedman & Bresaw, PLLC in December of 2019 in Meredith, video conferencing and electronic filings have become the new normal.
Friedman & Bresaw is a small law firm whose primary practice is criminal defense, family law, and personal injury law.
While there has been a slowdown in court appearances, Bresaw says his firm continues to prepare cases for trial and to resolve matters favorably for clients.
“We continue to remain open and operational to our current clients and new clients,” he said, adding that the courts and the legal community have continued to adapt to the current climate through electronic filing, telephonic hearings and continued communication with the legal community.
“Our workload has remained essentially the same, along with our obligation to our clients, the only thing that has changed is the mode of communication while practicing social distancing,” Bresaw explains, adding that his firm is making significant use of video conferencing “to keep the personalization and connection with our clients.”
Moving forward, according to social distancing guidelines, Breesaw says his firm is committed to the rights of their clients.