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Bar’s Virtual Town Hall examines the challenges of practicing during a pandemic

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'The crisis has inspired more collaboration among lawyers when it comes to scheduling and discovery issues'

11th Circuit Town HallEager to hear the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 200 South Florida lawyers logged in August 5 to a Florida Bar Virtual Town Hall forum geared to the 11th Circuit.

The first of 20 forums she plans to lead in the next few months, President Dori Foster-Morales began with a brief introduction, and a plea for suggestions.

“This afternoon, we’re focusing on how we as lawyers are coping with the pandemic, how the judicial system is adapting its operations to the pandemic, and what more the Bar can do to assist our members during this pandemic and the recovery,” Foster-Morales said.

She also asked for patience.

“It has been my experience during the pandemic that we, as representatives of our clients and officers of the court, need to zero in on being flexible and creative, patient and professional,” she said. “And I always believe that we as a profession have the unique ability to do those things.”

With the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the emphasis is on ‘help’Foster-Morales also urged participants to take advantage of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline, a confidential, toll-free line staffed by mental-health professionals who serve as a gateway to free mental-health counseling, financial counseling, elder and child-care services, and a host of other resources (833-FL1-WELL).

“If you, like me, are struggling, it’s okay to get help,” Foster-Morales said.

An anonymous poll conducted during the forum showed that 6% of respondents had phoned the help line, 64% had heard of it, and 30% were unaware of it.

Foster-Morales said suggestions from the forum would be forwarded to a newly created COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force.

Chaired by President-elect Michael Tanner, the 13-member panel’s mission statement is to “study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Florida’s legal profession, identify key issues facing citizens of Florida and Florida Bar members, and advise The Florida Bar president and executive director on how to best address the key issues.”

In addition to Florida Bar board members, the task force includes Esther Jacobo, director of the Citrus Family Care Network, a lead child welfare agency in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties; Masimba Mutamba, assistant county attorney for Palm Beach County; and Laura Davis Smith, a prominent family law practitioner and managing partner with Davis Smith & Jean, LLC, in Miami.

At an inaugural meeting on July 15, Chair Michael Tanner said the panel will not operate like previous Bar task forces that focused on a single issue to develop a white paper.

“We’re going to have to be more flexible than that,” Tanner said. “One of our overarching goals is to identify specific, tangible benefits for members to deal with COVID-19.”

Forum moderator and Board of Governors member Steve Davis, who represents the 11th Circuit, introduced panelists, including Chief Judge Bertila Soto, Civil Division Judge Jennifer Bailey, Family Division Judge Scott Bernstein, and Criminal Division Judge Nushin Sayfi, and several local voluntary bar presidents.

Attendees who asked about a date for returning to jury trials were bound to be disappointed. Earlier in the day, state officials announced that COVID-19 cases had surged beyond 500,000, with a daily death toll reaching 225.

South Florida is feeling the brunt of the surge, Judge Bailey said.

“We will not return the courthouse to normal for a very extended amount of time,” she said. “Some lawyers are in denial about that…judges aren’t.”

Bailey said lawyers should be focusing on meeting deadlines and moving their cases along as much as possible, because the courts will be inundated when the pandemic subsides, she said.

“There’s a tendency to want to sit on your cases until we get back to normal,” she said. “The truth of the matter is that at least in civil, we expect to be swamped.”

But a lack of jury trials doesn’t mean the courts have been dormant, said Chief Judge Soto. She reported that since March 30, the 11th Circuit has conducted 51,819 remote hearings.

“We are working really, really hard, and we know you are too,” she said. “Business has changed completely since March 30.”

The pandemic’s psychological toll has been evident in the family division, with divorce and domestic violence rising dramatically, Judge Bernstein said. “Apparently all of this togetherness…is not going really well for our families,” he said.

But the good news, Bernstein said, is that the crisis has inspired more collaboration among lawyers when it comes to scheduling and discovery issues.

“The level of cooperation among lawyers is way up,” he said.

A recent Florida Bar survey showed that 35% of lawyers reported that their weekly billable hours have decreased in the past two months, compared to 12% who reported an increase in weekly billable hours. About one-third, 30%, reported no change in weekly billable hours.

Miami-Dade County Bar Association President Jane Muir said her organization is planning to set aside space in its downtown building to give lawyers a place to work between hearings at the courthouse.

The majority of Miami-Dade County’s 17,000 lawyers are sole practitioners or in small firms, and may need the help, she said.

“We expect a lot of law firms are going to downsize their offices or move to remote to conserve resources,” she said. “Because of this, we are anticipating a softer market, and less available resources for lawyers.”

Cuban American Bar Association President Frances Guasch said members of her organization have been struggling. CABA organized mental-health seminars to help its members deal with stress, she said.

“The challenges are so varied, one size does not fit all,” she said. “The challenges depend on age, resources, computer skills, likewise, younger attorneys are missing out on networking and mentoring.”

The health crisis didn’t stop more than 200 South Florida lawyers from volunteering their services to Dade Legal Aid, said executive director Karen Ladis.

“However, the flip side is we are experiencing a huge spike in family law, domestic violence, and housing [cases], and we definitely need more lawyers to volunteer,” she said.

As the forum was winding down, Foster-Morales urged participants to consider answering Ladis’ challenge.

“One of the greatest ways to become a proficient lawyer is to take a case and put something back,” she said. “You’ll be helping out your community, you’ll be helping out the court system, and you’ll be learning something.”

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