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18th Circuit lawyers and judges discuss the pandemic and how it has impacted the profession

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Judge DavidsonAdjusting to remote technology was a struggle at first, even for a legal community that includes the Space Coast, 18th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Lisa Davidson told President Dori-Foster Morales.

“Getting lawyers to accept change and use the technology,” was the biggest challenge after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, Judge Davidson said. “But now that has subsided.”

Dori-Foster-MoralesDuring a noon Virtual Town Hall — part of her 20-circuit listening tour — Foster-Morales led a discussion about the COVID-19 pandemic with a panel that also included Florida Bar board member James Vickaryous and local voluntary bar and legal aid society leaders.

Vickaryous said Central Florida lawyers now deserve a “pat on the back” for mastering the Microsoft Teams videoconferencing platform that the courts use for most proceedings.

“Everybody…has really stepped up virtually to help their clients,” Vickaryous said.

The Brevard County Bar Association came to the rescue early with a Microsoft Teams CLE, said Guna Ose, the first assistant state attorney to serve as BCBA president.

Presenters included a judge and court administrators, Ose said.

“We know that a majority of our lawyers didn’t have training on Teams,” she said. “We really needed it. I think that’s what helped Brevard.”

Michael Sasso, president of the Seminole County Bar Association, suggested that The Florida Bar develop CLE or reference material for beginning remote technology users.

“For those who are struggling, I would say a little tutorial, a CLE, a walk-through,” he said. “Or even just a little pamphlet, a ‘How-To For Dummies.’”

Vickaryous urged town hall participants to view the Bar’s redesigned COVID-19 Information and Resource webpage.

The page features videos and links to the latest news, member resources, free CLEs, court orders, consumer resources, and national and local professional lawyer groups.

With the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the emphasis is on ‘help’The site also provides a wealth of mental health and wellness resources, including easy access to the Bar’s Florida Lawyers Helpline, a free and confidential service that connects members with free counseling (1-888-FL1-WELL.)

“I encourage everybody in the 18th circuit to use this as their home page, because it’s updated many times a day,” Vickaryous said.

Remote technology is more efficient, but there are drawbacks, Judge Davidson said. Evidence submission remains “difficult,” and requires lawyers to plan further ahead, she said.

“I ask the lawyers to send me the exhibits ahead of time,” she said. “It takes a real thought process.”

Litigants continue to struggle with remote technology, Judge Davidson said. She said when one litigant was unable to log in to a hearing, a lawyer had to drive to the litigant’s home to help download software.

Pro-se litigants lack access to the basic technology, Foster-Morales said. Judge Davidson agreed to consider setting up computer kiosks to address the problem.

Brevard Legal Aid, Inc., is setting aside office space and computers for its clients so they can meet virtually with legal aid attorneys who are stationed in the same building, said executive director Robert Johnson.

“It’s particularly difficult in pro bono,” Johnson said. “We’ve purchased a bunch of computers, laptops, and have the attorneys in one area, and the clients in another.”

Noting that an anonymous Zoom poll showed that 9% of town hall participants are struggling with isolation, Foster-Morales asked how the circuit is dealing with stress.

Jay Thakkar, a YLD board member who represents the 18th Judicial Circuit, said the division is offering a wealth of health and wellness resources.

“Having more time at home with families is a good thing,” he said. “But sometimes it causes more issues too.”

Foster-Morales urged participants to take advantage of the Florida Lawyers Helpline. She stressed that the service is confidential.

“If I, as president of The Florida Bar, wanted to find out what kind of calls are being made, the answer is, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you,’” Foster-Morales said. “It’s fully confidential, nobody at the Bar knows anything you call about.”

Judges are stressed about the growing backlog of cases, Judge Davidson said.

To keep the backlog manageable, the 18th Circuit has reinstituted a night traffic court, she said, with three judges hearing 75 cases each in a single session.

Participants reported that the economic fallout from the pandemic has also been stressful. The anonymous Zoom poll showed that 43% of participants reported declining income.

The result for the Brevard County Bar Association has been a decline in membership, Ose said. Some lawyers are unable to pay the BCBA’s $150 membership fee, she said.

“I’m really worried that the trend will continue into next year,” she said.

Local law firms have donated to a fund to pay the membership fees for sole practitioners and government lawyers, Ose said.

“But it is very obvious to us this year that even the small BCBA membership fee is too much,” she said.

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