Covid-19 has forever changed the workforce as many industries are realizing that they can operate the same, if not better, remotely than in-person. Unfortunately, the legal profession is not one of those industries. Covid-19 has indeed forced the legal industry to swiftly re-invent itself in order to continue operating.
As a student at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline’s School of Law, we are encouraged to participate in a “co-op” to gain practical experience. A co-op involves a cooperative arrangement with a law firm such that students get access to hands-on training not available in a classroom.
Since I am interested in pursuing family law as a career, this semester I matched with the Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC, a civil litigation firm located in Philadelphia with a significant family law practice. While many of my peers worked remotely at their co-op experience, I retained some normalcy in that I was fortunate enough to co-op in person at Linda’s office. Not only did this experience significantly increase my knowledge of family law, but it also exposed me to the challenges Covid-19 presents to the legal profession.
In Philadelphia County, almost all court proceedings are being conducted virtually via either video or telephone conference, as they have been for the past several months. This has significantly changed the dynamic of the proceedings and affected other procedures in the process. In many cases, litigants exchange evidence several days in advance, rather than on the spot during the hearing. This alters how attorneys prepare for these proceedings because they are now able to tailor their arguments to the evidence submitted.
Court proceedings are no strangers to technological issues. Connectivity issues have caused lag times, and on many occasions, it has been difficult to hear and understand the individual speaking.
Another issue is “making an appearance.” On one occasion, counsel was experiencing trouble connecting and the judge ultimately allowed him to call into the proceeding, rather than actually appear on camera. Typically, counsel would never be able to “call” into court instead of physically appearing, but judges have made exceptions to keep proceedings moving.
Court proceedings are no strangers to technological issues. Connectivity issues have caused lag times, and on many occasions, it has been difficult to hear and understand the individual speaking. These impediments to clear communication hinders the attorney’s ability to effectively advocate for their clients. Additionally, on numerous occasions participants did not receive the link to the proceeding ahead of time, preventing the individual from joining the virtual courtroom and delaying the whole proceeding.
Clients, on the other hand, are relieved of the inconvenience of traveling to the courthouse for hearings, but instead have to ensure that they have the technological capabilities to participate in the virtual hearings. This can be challenging for those who are not as familiar with technology. Further, given stay-at-home orders with children learning remotely, this can present problems for parents of younger children because they have to find a quiet place to participate in the proceeding or may even need to find someone to watch their children while they are in a virtual courtroom. Beyond that, clients lack face-to-face interactions with their attorneys and have to rely heavily on email and phone calls.
Divorce, custody and support issues continue apace and protection from abuse matters still must be heard by the court.
In light of the pandemic, some parents have taken it upon themselves to change or modify their custody agreements so there are less exchanges and movement between the two households during the week. While these modifications appear to be working, if a parent would change his or her mind and wanted to resume the agreed upon custody arrangement, a problem may arise and the parties’ attorneys may need to get involved.
As expected, family law matters have not slowed down as a result of the pandemic. Divorce, custody and support issues continue apace and protection from abuse matters still must be heard by the court.
My co-op experience allowed me to witness Covid-19’s impact on the legal profession firsthand, or as closely as virtual work allowed. To me, video and telephone hearings seem like a substandard substitute for in-person proceedings where participants can be engaged, present and heard, without interruptions due to technology failures. While the stay at home orders necessitated the adaptations, I believe litigants will be better served by in-person proceedings, once the pandemic ends.
Rachael Shaw is a law student at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law.