Courthouses in most parts of California have closed their doors. The classrooms of the law faculties are empty. Legal proceedings are suspended. Large law firms across the country are cutting their payrolls. But lawsuits and crimes are still being filed. The coronavirus pandemic, like most other companies, has harmed legal affairs but has not reduced many Californians' need for lawyers.
Like most crises, the pandemic leads to new legal conflicts – for example, between employers and workers, insurers and companies with shutters, regulators and property owners. And on the criminal side between those who want to keep accused malefactors behind bars and those who want them released. On the other hand, mergers and acquisitions are declining, so lawyers see less work in these areas.
"In my opinion, work and employment practices, whether unionized or in management, have many clients who need legal advice and representation," said Michael Rubin, a lawyer in San Francisco who represents workers. "Consumer lawyers on the plaintiffs side don't seem to have slowed down at all. Environmental issues are as pressing as ever."
Advocates for victim rights have hardly seen a downturn.
"In many ways, we're busier than ever," said Micha Star Liberty, whose small company in Oakland represents people who sue schools, hospitals, doctors and other professionals for physical or sexual abuse. She is also the president of the 4,000-member California consumer attorneys.
Other sub-groups of legal practice also flourish.
"Technology, data protection and real estate are very big – and employment," said Cari Brunelle, whose company is responsible for public relations for law firms in various areas. "Another hot practice is bankruptcy."
Overall, however, lawyers and their law firms are financially affected, as are all companies affected by the fluctuating US economy and declining daily transactions.
According to the online legal publication Law360, 126 large law firms across Germany cut their budgets on Friday. More than half had cut attorneys' salaries and cut or canceled summer law student employment programs, while 14 laid-off employees and 31 employees were given temporary leave to suspend their pay but often maintained their health insurance.
More than 64,000 people lost their jobs in the US legal profession last month, said the recorder, another legal publication. And the Clio legal service website reported that 49% of consumers surveyed in April said that if a new legal problem arose, they would likely wait until the pandemic subsided.
"Work in many (legal) areas of activity has dried up," said Brunelle. “Financial services, big industries, hospitality, retail, so many (companies) are going under. Firms that serve them are hit hard. "
One such firm that has apparently avoided the worst punches to date is Davis Wright Tremaine, a 566-person law firm based in Seattle with an office in San Francisco. The company has cut wages by 6% to 15% – with the biggest cuts for top executives – and 8% of its non-lawyers, such as clerks, secretaries, receptionists, and legal assistants, go on vacation with health benefits. It has also cut back on its summer program for law students.
"There aren't a lot of deals that are going to be closed or started," said Jeff Gray, managing partner, of legal-related transactions such as mergers and acquisitions. He said the company was not harmed as much as others because of its diverse practices, in many cases with government regulation of its customers. "Regulators have not closed yet, and there is a lot of work to do," he said.
This also applies to companies that are suing insurance companies that have decided to cover business interruption in their contracts. This does not apply to losses from closures caused by the corona virus.
"We were kept by hundreds of large and small companies," said lawyer Adam Levitt, whose Chicago law firm asked the federal courts to consolidate and transfer all such cases to Chicago. The firm has also filed a lawsuit in San Francisco for reimbursement of activity fees for University of California and California State University students – a gym fee doesn't make sense when the campus gym is closed, Levitt said – and is expanding its nationwide staff of 20 lawyers .
The economic slowdown has not diminished demand for representation of institutional complaints, said Liberty, the Oakland attorney who handles physical and sexual abuse claims and heads the nationwide organization of plaintiffs' attorneys.
"People who have been injured have time to look for and speak to lawyers who have not done so before," said Liberty. At the same time, she said, "the California judicial system has completely collapsed" – lawsuits have been suspended indefinitely, civil proceedings have moved into the background as courts do limited business, and some sick clients may even die before their cases can arise heard, drastically reduces the potential damage that your goods could recover.
There will also be ramifications for court officials such as employees and bailiffs. No major downsizing has been reported yet, but this appears to be changing with Governor Gavin Newsom's revised budget on Thursday, which proposes massive cuts in funds to offset the suddenly threatening $ 54 billion viral budget deficit. The cuts include 10% for funding litigation in 2020-21 and 5% for the following year, partially offset by an additional $ 50 million for the expected increase in filings when the courts reopen.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the deficit "sobering" and said the judiciary would work with Newsom and the legislature to try to maintain public service. "Nobody wants to turn away those who come to our courts to seek justice," she said in a statement.
Criminal lawyers still have their hands full without trial. The drop in crime rates has not stopped new criminal proceedings, and removing the bail for many charges has not ended hearings on whether newly arrested suspects should be detained in prison. Under conditions that pose new challenges, pleas have to be filed, cases examined and witnesses interviewed.
"I usually sit next to my client," said Alexandria Carl, a San Francisco defense lawyer who attended a preliminary personal hearing earlier this month. "We have close contacts … lots of whispering, communication that we like to keep quiet, which is difficult from a distance of 6 feet in an open courtroom." And speaking through a mask made it harder for the court reporter to hear and transcribe her words, said Carl.
In the pre-pandemic period, a defendant "slapped me on the shoulder or gave me a note during the testimony during court hearings saying that what this witness said was incorrect," said Elizabeth Camacho, who was in public of San Francisco's criminal case office is the defender's office. "Now they can't. So we came up with a walkie-talkie system" by pressing a button on a handheld receiver to transmit whispers between the lawyer and the client.
Whenever criminal proceedings are resumed, they will still be affected by the virus and surrounding fears, Camacho said.
"Will the jury want to listen or will they be so concerned that they can't process the evidence?" She asked. "Masks, social distance – where will you think? This is really a scary time for customers who are in custody waiting for the process. "
A somewhat reassuring answer came from Randy Sue Pollock, an Oakland defense attorney who had just returned from a two-month trial in Lexington, Kentucky. She said this was the only trial against a criminal jury in a U.S. federal court during the pandemic. Her Los Angeles client was acquitted of drug delivery charges to Kentucky.
When the courts closed in mid-March, the trial was ongoing for three weeks and the jury wanted to continue, Pollock said. She said the judge had given the jury extra seats to keep her distance, and exposed and unmasked her hands during the presidency. Masks were made available to the jury, but only one wore them and the others donated them to front workers, Pollock said. She said the jury gave advice in a large room for nine days.
"It's a miracle that we came to a verdict and nobody got sick," said Pollock.
San Francisco defense lawyer Mano Raju said his office was still busy investigating cases, interviewing witnesses, and preparing for future lawsuits. District Attorney Chesa Boudin spends time on the front lines, negotiating and discussing cases in courtrooms or remotely, and taking a closer look at the position he was elected in November.
"I am a litigator," said Boudin, a former deputy public defense attorney. "I love to be on trial. I miss it. "He is now concentrating on" protecting my employees, maintaining morale (in) an enormously stressful time ".
Berkeley's lawyer Cliff Gardner represents defendants who are appealing against their beliefs and has not yet seen a slowdown. However, he expects one in a few months as the lawsuits are suspended. Visits to clients in prison are also suspended, but they can still exchange letters. "Thank goodness we still have the United States Postal Service."
"Those of us who have work are happy to have it," said Gardner. "At the moment there are much more serious problems than ours."
Bob Egelko is an employee of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @BobEgelko