As the second lockdown in Israel ends, some European countries begin theirs. Meanwhile, the U.S. is grappling with a historic election that will dictate the next step in their own COVID-19 response. In the midst of all this global and nationwide turmoil, the legal industry is continually adapting. We spoke to lawyers from the United States and Israel to gain some insight into how their professions have changed over the last 7 months, and what the future might hold.
Almost everyone in the legal profession across the world had a period of time where they were forced to work from home. Andrew Bowen, a partner at Bowen Painter feels that while the actual transition online was not so difficult, productivity significantly decreased. “We found that collaboration was less natural and assigned tasks often became the goal as opposed to working and thinking creatively about how to advance cases,” says Bowen. “Things just bogged down.”
Adv. Azariah Hacohen, an attorney in Tel Aviv, explained his peers experienced similar productivity challenges. “My peers have certainly been working harder to maintain the hours held before the pandemic. Adapting to work from home was less natural to some than others.”
In Bowen’s state of Georgia, the lockdown was short-lived. The state was one of the first in the US to reopen. Bowen’s firm quickly returned to the office, first by using a staggered work schedule before transitioning back to the office with precautions in place.
In Hacohen’s case, that wasn’t possible. Israeli firms delayed reopening in-person operations due to Israel’s COVID-19 protocols.
As both countries locked down, their respective court systems also shut down, delaying trials and legal proceedings.
In a normal year, the Israeli courts are closed from mid-July through early September, so even during the summer when cases were down and the country was open, cases were not being tried. In addition to a major backlog of cases from the lockdown, Israel now has to contend with about 900 COVID-19 related cases flooding the system.
In the United States, many courts still remain closed for in-person trials.
“We’re crossing our fingers, praying for trials to resume in person in December,” says Texas-based Brett Cain, founder of the Cain Firm and partner at The Law Center. Cain had trials set for March and May, which were canceled. His last trial was in January.
“Of course trying these cases is our bread and butter, so it certainly hurts to have trials delayed,’” says Alan Holcomb, from the Alabama-based Turnbull Cain and Holcomb firm. “But the biggest impact, unfortunately, is on our clients, many of whom need serious medical care and will not be able to get it until there is a resolution.”
“As a trial lawyer, the imminent threat of a trial is the ultimate bright line in the sand that often motivates settlement. With that threat becoming less tangible, there are some cases that should have been resolved by now that have not.” Bowen also notes that some of his clients are feeling litigation fatigue because now there is no end in sight, especially as criminal cases take priority over civil cases due to constitutional concerns.
Even as the United States started doing some trials remotely, Cain, Holcomb, and Bowen agree that it is not the same as in-person trials, and they are eager for them to start up again.
Israel has only recently started doing remote trials.
The closure of the courts and lockdowns have had a significant financial impact on most types of businesses, both in the US and abroad. The legal profession is no different.
“Instead of an increasing workload, as expected, we were suddenly hit with less work,” Bowen says. “There was certainly some belt-tightening on the part of the shareholders.”
Cain, however, says “we were blessed and continue to be blessed,” as his firm did not have to lay off any staff members. Cain was able to hire six new employees, from what he has seen to be a pool of much higher quality candidates. But even so, Cain has seen his peers suffer tremendously. He says the fact that so many qualified people are looking for jobs is indicative of many law firms being forced to let go of quality employees.
In Israel, many of Hacohen’s colleagues face a similar struggle. “Some have been let go, but many have agreed to take salary cuts to keep their jobs,” he says. “I know a number of people who are making around 60% of their salary from before the pandemic. Others are either still in the process of securing their next position, or have left the field entirely. It’s been a challenging time for everyone.”
Reopening Plans and Precautions
Georgia, Alabama and Texas were quick to reopen, and Bowen, Holcomb, and Cain have their respective offices running. In Texas, law offices were even considered an essential business.
Both Bowen’s and Holcomb’s offices follow the Center For Disease Control’s guidelines for reopening businesses. These guidelines include mask-wearing, temperature checks, and requiring employees to quarantine for 2 weeks after exposure to anyone who has the virus.
To encourage reopening, Georgia signed a bill giving businesses immunity from being sued if someone contracts COVID-19 within their premises. Bowen says even without that bill, it would be tough to win that kind of lawsuit.
“Proving that any one business was the source of your infection would be extremely difficult, to begin with,” he says. “Particularly for someone who was obviously out and about in the community in order to enter that business in the first place.”
In Israel, most firms have not resumed working full time in person. Instead, they have created a “pod system.” In the “pod system,” the office is broken up into groups of people that work together in person without overlap with other groups. So, if one member of the pod gets sick, the entire pod can isolate at home but the other pods can continue to work in person without fear of exposure. In others, the partners are in separate pods so that even if one partner gets infected, the other can take care of business as usual.
Coping with Stress
Lockdown stress is something that almost everyone felt at some point over the course of the pandemic. While individual people cope with it in different ways, art, music, sports, and family time were used across the world.
Bowen got to spend more time with his children and devoted more time to cooking. He even was able to revisit old hobbies. “I dusted off my old guitar to pick up where I left off years ago,” he says.
Hacohen also picked up his guitar and spent some time pursuing his other interests including electrical engineering, graphic design, and woodworking. Then, right after the second lockdown, he got engaged. “There is no time like the present to learn and develop new skills. And having a life-partner to do it all with is also certainly a blessing.”
Holcomb initially felt overwhelmed by the news but realized early that he could not control how the virus was affecting society. So, he focused his energy on things he could control– spending time with his family, litigation tasks that could be done from home, and exercising. Then much to his delight, major league baseball started up again in July.
Cain decided to use the time to focus more on his firm’s 10-year vision. “Planning ahead helps with anxiety, with day-to-day,” he says. “The state government is doing its thing. We just have to plow the ground and keep working, not thinking twice about the obstacles”