In early March, the Mariano Morales Law Firm settled into its new location in downtown Yakima.
But within weeks, owner Mariano Morales found himself at Costco purchasing laptops so his staff could work from home. When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Yakima, Morales, like many other business owners, had to shift gears to keep employees and clients safe.
In this month’s Checking In column, Morales, 63, shares more about the adjustments he’s made for his law firm, which he opened in 1994, and what it’s been like to practice law during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What changes did you and your law firm have to make in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Law firms are considered essential, so we have remained open and fully operational. I told my staff at the outset that I had three goals: to keep them safe, to keep them employed, and not reduce any salaries. So far, we have met those three objectives.
In mid-March, we contacted all clients and told them that until further notice, as a matter of public safety, we would not be having in-person meetings, and all communications would be handled by phone and or email. Our clients all responded favorably and were very understanding as well as grateful that we are taking safety seriously.
Because my practice is very document-intensive, we instituted electronic signatures through DocuSign and Adobe Acrobat.
I purchased laptops for all staff and enabled them to work remotely. We rotate in the office with only three to four people in at a time, while the rest work from home. I work remotely full-time and try not to be in the office more than one day a week to sign checks or attend a virtual mediation/arbitration. The staff has been required to wear masks for several weeks. When in their private office, they don’t need to wear them, but in the common areas, they are required. When mail arrives, we require that it be dropped through the mail slot.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business?
The impact on us has been mainly operational; our workload has not been impacted. The volume is the same, but how we go about our work has just been modified with electronic signatures, virtual meetings, mediations, court hearings, arbitrations and depositions. Unfortunately, Yakima County has not instituted electronic filing like most other counties, so filing things is a little slower.
How does a law firm work remotely, given the amount of paper and signatures involved?
I had set a goal of going paperless by the end of the year, so this moved up our schedule. Just before the lockdown, we made sure that every document in every case was scanned to the server, so everything is available electronically. All client files can be accessed remotely by staff.
Once we instituted the electronic signature capabilities, everything went smoothly. They are very user-friendly, so clients have been able to respond quickly. Staff, clients, medical providers, insurance carriers and defense attorney firms have responded to this challenge with grace and cooperation. We have settled several significant cases in which insurance companies in the past required notarize signatures — we have gotten them to modify and waive this with the reliability of programs like DocuSign.
What has it been like practicing all virtually? How have courts and lawyers adjusted to the change?
Practicing law virtually has been interesting, but for the most part, has gone smoothly. I have had several hearings telephonically with cases in New Mexico and California. We prepared PowerPoint presentations and emailed them to the judge so she could review during the hearing. Depositions are all been by some form of video conferencing, and they have gone well. I recently held a successful virtual mediation that involved a client in California, the mediator and insurance carrier in Spokane and defense counsel in Seattle. After a couple of minor technical glitches, the rest of the day went fine, and the case settled.
I have a trial in Santa Fe, N.M., in mid-August. New Mexico will start holding jury trials mid-July. They require everyone entering the courthouse to wear masks, 6-foot spacing during jury selection, and throughout the jury trial. The lawyers, witnesses, jurors, and judges will all be required to wear masks throughout the entire trial. We have opted to present most of our witnesses through videotaped depositions.
I’ll be arguing my first virtual arbitration next week with local clients, Seattle defense counsel and the arbitrator in the Lower Valley. We have exchanged all documents electronically, so I look forward to the experience.
Texas held its first jury trial by Zoom recently, and it was a nightmare. Since the jurors were in their homes, they dressed however they wanted, some held pets in their laps, others texting and responding to phone calls, and some used the restroom whenever they pleased. It is impossible to control what people are going to do in their own homes, and I certainly hope that Washington doesn’t follow suit.
I think most attorneys and courts have responded well to the increased use of virtual technology. Although, a judge admonished a couple of Florida attorneys for appearing at video hearings shirtless, in sunglasses and glistening suntan oil! Another attorney was admonished for appearing for a virtual hearing in her pajamas sitting in bed with her laptop. I think most lawyers now have the hint that we must appear and behave as professionally as we would in person.
Your specialty is personal injury law. What kinds of cases could arise from the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think businesses that are opening their doors before they’re authorized to do so and exposing people to COVID-19 infections are certainly opening themselves up to liability. Also, businesses that are not following the guidelines to prevent the spread could be legally culpable. The damages from an infection can be extremely costly, so businesses should consider that before acquiescing to risky customer behavior.
I also think there will be several business interruption claims. Many business insurance policies include a business interruption clause. Still, they will be very narrowly construed by the carrier, so don’t expect insurance companies to just issue checks without a fight. Not all policies are written the same, so careful attention to the specific wording in that part of the clause as well as to the exclusions section is key.
Cases are already being filed against nursing homes for not adequately protecting their patients, and I expect you may see this in other health care settings as well.
What long-term impact do you see COVID-19 having on lawyers and the law industry?
First, I think the industry understands that we don’t need to be in the office all the time and that our profession is very amenable to working remotely. As we move forward to a more paperless profession with the advent of cloud-based servers, there will be less of a need for an ample office space like we’ve been accustomed to. I think client communications via telephonic and video chat and electronic signatures are here to stay. I have yet to hear one complaint from a client regarding this trend. I expect more virtual depositions, mediations and arbitrations. I’ve also been very surprised at how understanding and appreciative clients have been to no in-person meetings.
I have great difficulty envisioning that we will conduct jury trials virtually. So much of what happens with the jury is personal; there is a group dynamic that takes place from jury selection through verdict that would be missing. That group dynamic is an integral part of our justice system. I think it can be achieved with the proper distancing and masking procedures. I’m curious how my Santa Fe travel goes in this regard.