By Atty. Kevin Palmersheim
WILMIC Board Member
It has been an unusual few weeks.
In addition to Coronavirus news, and ever-changing social distancing guidelines, most of us have been adapting to working remotely. During that time we have learned some important things about ourselves, such as how valuable our support staff is in making us efficient; the resources unavailable online or on our computers; and which family members you’re cooped up with tend to be the most annoying and why you wisely chose never to start a family business.
Fortunately for lawyers, both in terms of productivity and sanity, working at home is not the exclusive option. The Governor’s order deemed legal services an essential business, permitting our offices to remain open during the state’s general shutdown.
The State Bar and others argued for classifying legal services as essential businesses, largely because issues related to criminal law, end of life matters and healthcare, and employment and housing rights are critical. While such legal services and advice are no doubt essential, that isn’t the whole story of why what we do is essential in times of crisis.
Client Issues from My Desk
Before I explain my thoughts on why our profession is essential, I’ll share a partial list of client issues that came across this business lawyer’s desk the last two weeks of March: • Advising restaurant/bars, hotels, and other businesses about helping laid off employees while keeping the business afloat;
- Answering client questions on the extended leave law for Coronavirus illnesses and business/ school closures;
- A client/landlord’s backed up sewage system impacting 3 essential businesses, caused by a contractor’s mistake, and how to get it fixed during the shutdown;
- Stipulating to more litigation deadline extensions than normally occur in a year;
- Determining the shutdown’s impact on a business’s employees who are in the middle of the immigration process that depends on remaining employed;
- Advising a client call center when an IT employee, who touches hundreds of computers per week, tested positive for COVID-19;
- Stalled real estate and business sale closings;
- Advising on the $2 trillion stimulus bill and the benefits and eligibility for business clients.
I know what you are thinking right now: “Kevin, you had me at ‘backed up sewage system!’”
I certainly don’t feel the above matters are more essential than other legal services that lawyers provide. In fact, legal advice addressing a person’s liberty and constitutional rights is undoubtedly one of the most important legal necessities. Likewise, certain civil legal issues, such as child custody issues and child protection, can’t simply be put off during times of crisis and, in fact, there is often a greater need for sound legal advice when everyone is confined to their homes.
Yet, the American dream that is also so closely related to our constitutional rights is greatly threatened when businesses are shut down, employees are laid off, schools and daycares are closed, and resources are not available to keep businesses and personal finances afloat. Combining that with the daily changes to the laws impacting unemployment, taxes, landlord tenant laws, and stimulus packages creates a significant demand for lawyers to interpret those laws and advise clients accordingly.
Helping Clients Beyond the Law
Lawyers certainly aren’t the only essential businesses during this period. Our healthcare workers are on the front lines, and our food supply chain is not far behind. But the critical services and advice we provide justifies categorizing legal services as an essential business. Essentiality, however, is not limited to specific types of legal services and that got me thinking about why lawyers are essential as a group during this time.
In recent weeks, I’ve had clients express appreciation for the help we give, and the message has been consistent. It wasn’t the ultimate advice that made them feel reassured and less stressed. Rather, they expressed that after they called with their issue and regaled me with the story, they got off the phone and immediately felt better. “It was a relief just knowing you were on my side and were going to help me,” one of them said. “It was a huge weight taken off of me and I could focus on other things,” said another.
These types of comments are not limited to catastrophic events, and I am often amazed at how appreciative clients are, and how good they feel, when they leave my office before I feel I’ve done anything specific to help them. All I have done is listen to their story, talk to them, and reassured them I can help. Listening, taking on someone’s problem, and advocating for the client constitutes a valuable service that we tend to take for granted because we are often driven by results.
In times of crisis, personal stress is even higher. There are countless health, family, financial and other reasons why people are currently burdened beyond their capacity. Many are near their breaking points. For someone to be able to call their lawyer and unburden themselves with even one issue on their to-do list provides them a tremendous amount of relief from the stress they are feeling. Providing this service makes us truly essential.
Don’t Forget Yourself!
Of course, being essential can add to a lawyer’s own stress. Each of you has your own personal and business burdens on top of the weight you take on from clients. It is vital that you boost your own mental health and find ways for relief. Programs such as the State Bar’s WISLAP program are there for you, as are your colleagues who can share ideas on navigating this crisis.
You are essential just as much for the intangible benefit you provide to clients as the tangible advice you convey. It is equally essential that you preserve your own well-being. So, if the family you are cooped up with continues to stress you out, and you are not getting sufficient mental and emotional relief, then I’m happy to share my distractions with you and send you the photographs and engineering analyses from my client’s failed 5,000 gallon septic holding tank. Fortunately, we can do this remotely and far outside smelling distance.