Monday, December 7, 2020

Guest Post: Covid-19 Taught Me to Be a Better Lawyer

By Jasmine Martinez, 3L at the University of Baltimore School of Law

Via Prof. Nickole Miller

 

Covid-19 has turned our world upside down to say the least. However, the world did not stop spinning. After lockdown, the world opened its doors to the restaurant around the corner, the gym you occasionally frequented, and even the courthouses of your state. Covid-19 has changed the legal field forever. I am more prepared to enter the legal field because of my experience as a student attorney in Bronfein Family Law Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law this past semester.

Looking back to August 2020, I was uneasy about what my experience in clinic would be like. I had the normal fears most student attorneys experience in clinic: not being good enough, failing my client, or failing my family expectations. However, my classmates and I also faced new challenges due to the pandemic. I wondered how I would build rapport with my clients over Zoom or successfully prepare them for court and advocate for their interests.

Today, as my time in clinic draws to a close, I am proud to say that none of my fears came true. My clinic partner, Shaye Reynolds, and I were able to creative problem solve and successfully advocate for our clients. The road to this success with our clients was not without obstacles or bumps in the road, but our experience in clinic taught us so much about the importance of preparation, flexibility, and resilience.

 

Challenges to client interactions

My classmates and I did not have a “traditional” clinic experience, to say the least. The pandemic kept us from having class and supervision meetings in-person. We learned, communicated, and collaborated on Zoom, Slack, e-mail, and WhatsApp. Our school’s Covid-19 regulations kept us from not only meeting for class in-person, but it also kept us from meeting with our clients in-person.

In clinic, we practice client-centered, trauma-informed lawyering. In-person interviews and meetings can be a big influence on the trust and rapport built between a client and their attorney. My partner and I had to think creatively about how to build this relationship in a remote environment where traditional tools like body language or even the simple act of offering someone a glass of water or tissue was not available.

With one of our clients, we were able to schedule video meetings. The video helped to mimic the face-to-face contact. We were able to build rapport and trust with our client by keeping eye-contact, checking in regularly, and allowing our client to take breaks when necessary.  With another one of our clients, we primarily communicated over telephone. This was more challenging, but we found ways to learn more about our client and make sure they felt comfortable with us as their attorney.

Another challenge to remote lawyering this semester was collecting evidence. Rather than being able to gather documents from our client in-person, we had to have our client email the documents over and think about how address any authenticity concerns and maintain confidentiality. We learned to find loopholes where Covid-19 put barriers.

My experience in clinic this semester was not unique. Earlier this year, the ABA Journal interviewed clinic students across the country whose work has been affected by Covid-19. Daniel Barragan, a clinic student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, explained how he had to share his WIFI connection at home with his four brothers and feared losing connection with his client. Others explained the challenges of using multiple tech platforms to communicate with clients, student attorneys, supervising faculty, and interpreters.  

To compound all of this, we’ve had to consider how remoted lawyering in a pandemic impacts our ethical duties. Lisa R. Lifshitz urged readers in the ABA’s Business Law Today to think seriously about security of client data, the background of those on zoom, and the adequate and secure backup of the documents. There has been a worry about the security of client data with everything being over the internet.

The background of those on Zoom is not always controllable too. Just like our families have to share space, our clients are sharing space with their families. We always checked with our client by asking if there was anyone else in the room with them or if there were any possible interruptions. Furthermore, we had to consider the security and storage of client data and documents on our computers. In clinic we relied heavily on CLIO, our case management software, to store documents and send documents for client review and signature. CLIO surveys found that 89 percent of people believed courts have improved through technology. Sateesh Nori tells the Queen’s Daily Eagle that “[r]emote work can be more productive and rewarding, law practice need not be indentured servitude and flexibility is the bait that will lure and retain smart, dedicated lawyers.”

Clients have shared that they do not mind communicating virtually and do not view it as less of a service than meeting in person. Although, communicating virtually will never be the same, it has cut down on travel time for clients and also time off work. For example, our client got home around 5pm and was able to meet with us by video by 5:30pm. This likely would not have been possible if she had to take public transit to our school.

 

Challenges in the courtroom

One of our cases this semester actually went to trial. At the time, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City was hearing custody trials in-person. There were numerous measures we had to follow to keep everyone safe that complicated both our court preparation and the actual trial. We chose to get Covid-19 tested before court to ensure we were not endangering those in the court room.

When we made it to trial, the obstacles were not over. We arrived early to the courthouse to go through check in, which now takes a little longer because of Covid-19 regulations. We had to have our temperature taken, we were asked if we had Covid-19 symptoms, and we were told to social distance. After we made it through check in, we continued to social distance and wear our masks. It is a Covid-19 regulation in Maryland to wear a mask when in public places, like a courthouse.

Each one of us had to wear a mask during the whole trial. This was another one of the obstacles of trial. It was difficult to project our voices to be able to be heard by everyone in the room. Not only was it difficult to talk, but it was difficult to see emotions or gauge how our client was feeling. It was also uncomfortable and hot to wear the mask for over 4 hours, but we knew it was for the greater good and protection of others.

Despite these challenges, I am happy to report we won our case!

Baltimore 12.7.20

Celebrating our court victory! Photo used with client's permission.

Conclusion

This semester was a roller-coaster. However, the semester was also an incredible learning experience. I was able experience first-hand how the legal field is adapting to a “new normal” and develop skills and techniques that will serve me well in my legal career. Here are just a few tips and tricks for future student attorneys who will be navigating lawyering during a pandemic:

  • Be intentional about your schedule. Make time for your clinic work and also make not to do your clinic work.
  • Always clarify with your client what their preferences are when it comes to the case, how you communicate, and what times you meet.
  • Challenge your assumptions and prepare to dig deeper for important facts and evidence, such as practicing active listening, asking open-ended questions, and utilizing the funnel interviewing technique.
  • Create small, internal deadlines. This helped me stay on track for our big goals without being stressed.
  • Communicate!!! Speak frequently with your partner, your supervisor, and your client.

In conclusion, Covid-19 has changed my life and the way I have learned to lawyer. I have learned how to work around not being able to meet with my client in person and how to create a client-attorney relationship without it as well. I have learned how to effectively advocate for my client using client-centered lawyering. Melina Healey stated in the ABA article that we (clinic students) are getting more experience communicating with our clients remotely. I would definitely agree. I will be more prepared entering the legal field post-pandemic after my experience with clinic than I would have been without it. This experience has prepared me immensely and I can’t wait to use what I learn to continuing advocating on behalf of children and families.

 

Sources:

https://www.foley.com/en/insights/publications/2020/08/advice-new-lawyers-starting-career-during-pandemic

https://www.americanbar.org/groups/business_law/publications/blt/2020/06/lawyering-pandemic/

https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2020/08/26/the-pandemic-gives-young-lawyers-a-chance-to-reconsider-their-career-path/

https://www.pli.edu/programs/the-art-of-lawyering-during-and-after-the-pandemic--keeping-your-composure-while-dealing-with-biases-and-bullying

Some additional resources: 

Plus tips on writing for a digital audience: https://bestpracticeslegaled.com/2020/07/15/why-law-profs-should-teach-law-students-to-write-for-the-digital-reader-in-the-age-of-covid-19-with-checklist/

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/clinic_prof/2020/12/guest-post-covid-19-taught-me-to-be-a-better-lawyer.html

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