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Wellness: How we can weather COVID-19 crisis | Darryl Singer

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 @ 8:37 AM | By Darryl Singer

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 @ 11:23 AM

Darryl Singer %>
Darryl Singer
COVID-19 has us all on the edge of our seats. What does it mean for our clients’ interests, the administration of justice, our health, our profession, our income, our families?

We simply cannot stop working. Many of us represent clients whose matters have real urgency (criminal and family matters, in particular, but also some civil matters such as those seeking injunctive relief). And all clients, regardless of the actual urgency, expect us to continue to move their cases forward as fast as practical during this time. Failure to do so may result in the client seeking other counsel or actively prejudicing even non-urgent matters. Our employees expect us to keep the door open so they will receive their paycheques. Our landlords and bankers and third-party service providers expect their monthly payments right on time. Our own families need to be fed.

It is simply not practical for any law firm, large or small, to shut down for two to four weeks. Law firms are at the end of the day a business. Small firms and sole practitioners will be put out of business if forced to close for even a short time. But even larger, well-funded firms could be in for a financial disaster if, for example, we are forced into a lockdown. The courts have taken the unprecedented step of shutting down for all but the most urgent matters such as bail hearings, child protection and domestic violence matters and civil injunctions. At least for now, court filing can still be done but that may too shut down by the time the week is out. For real estate and corporate lawyers, deals have to close. For litigators, even if the courts are closed, there is no shortage of drafting, file review, correspondence and client communication that will still need to be done. In fact, the court closures make client communication even more imperative. The announcement from the court that only the most urgent matters will be heard means something different to your clients than to you. Every client believes their case is urgent and effective communication will be the key to keeping your clients happy during this time.

At the same time, we are in the midst of the most serious public health crisis most of us have ever seen. The significance and urgency of our country containing COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Schools, conferences, sporting events, concerts and large gatherings have all been cancelled. We may yet see a lockdown of all non-essential services (retail stores and restaurants), as France, Spain and Israel all announced.

So how does our profession balance the client and business interests with the greater public good and our own personal health? Here are some suggestions, many of which are already being implemented by firms of all sizes:

  1. Make use of telephone or video (Skype; Facetime; GotoMeeting) where possible. This would include, where appropriate and in keeping with the Rules of Professional Conduct, new client intakes, existing client meetings, meetings with opposing counsel, witness prep.
  2. If your office has the ability for you to access all your files, work remotely if you can. Many large firms and in-house legal departments already have had many of their lawyers working remotely for several years now.
  3. Where there are concerns about contact with others, discoveries and mediations can be done by videoconference.
  4. Avoid non-essential social gatherings, large group meetings, CPD programs and the like. When you go home for the day, do not go out and socialize at night. For many of us with kids involved in extracurriculars, these have already been cancelled, so there is no reason not to stay home at night and on the weekend.
  5. When you are in the office, make sure to wash your hands.
  6. Firms should be sanitizing common areas, doorknobs, elevator buttons etc. Also, put a sign-in sheet at reception to track the names of all visitors coming into the office. Make sure reception screens them to ensure they do not exhibit any of the symptoms or have just used air travel.
  7. If any of your employees were away out of the country, make them follow public health directives on self-quarantine.
  8. Because we do not how long the crisis will last, or what the courts will do, litigators should review all limitation periods for claims and trial records coming up in the next six months.

As courts and tribunals across the province are moving to implement better use of technology during this time (which will perhaps include case conferences, scheduling courts, and pretrials by teleconference, bail hearings by video, expanded electronic filing and adjournment requests dealt with in writing), I am wondering if the lessons of this health crisis will be instructive in the long term in finding a less cumbersome court process and more efficient way to practise law. I have some thoughts on that topic, but that can wait for my next column.

Darryl Singer is head of commercial and civil litigation at Diamond & Diamond Lawyers in Toronto and (teaser for next column) still wonders why we have to file so much paper in court in this golden age of technology.

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