Section leaders work to educate their members; are confident lawyers will adjust
‘A good lawyer should be skilled in dealing with adversity’
With part of its mission to “preserve and protect the jury system,” the Trial Lawyers Section has every reason to feel uniquely targeted by COVID-19.
Two months ago, the Florida Supreme Court suspended jury trials and ordered judges to use remote technology whenever possible to protect the public.
“While our courts are open, the door’s not wide open, if you know what I mean,” said Trial Lawyer Section Chair Clifford “Sandy” Sanborn, a Northwest Florida lawyer.
But Sanborn says the section has more than proved that it is up to the challenge.
In a recent letter to his 5,491 members, Sanborn detailed an extensive effort to adjust to the new COVID-19 reality.
Much of it involves keeping members updated with a newsletter and quickly producing CLE programs and webcasts that are posted on the section website.
The offerings include, “The New Normal: Practical and Legal Considerations for Remote Depositions and Mediations,” “Business as (UN)usual – Remote Hearings in the COVID Crisis and Beyond,” “Back to the Basics: 20+ Writing Tips for the Modern Lawyer.”
Another, “Business Interruption: Loss of Income Coverage for COVID-19,” is scheduled for a live webcast on June 3 at 12 p.m.
Sanborn is not aware of a section member or leader who has fallen seriously ill with COVID-19.
“Our main concern was with the folks down in Miami-Dade and Broward County, but they are safe so far,” he said.
Like most members of the legal community, section members have had to adjust to social distancing, either by working from home or making changes to their workplaces and workplace routines, Sanborn said.
And while most members are worried about the pandemic’s massive economic disruption, they also expect a torrent of legal disputes when courts return to full speed.
“I anticipate business interruption insurance will be a very hot topic,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn’s email message also links to a website for Chief Justice Charles Canady’s “Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After COVID-19.”
Most members are eagerly awaiting the workgroup’s recommendations for prioritizing cases that have been put on hold by the pandemic, Sanborn said.
“That’s the big issue, trying to minimize the backlog,” he said. “We’re trying to figure ways to move cases along.”
Sanborn is grateful that a workgroup civil subcommittee chair contacts him frequently to keep abreast of the section’s concerns and ideas.
When jury trials resume, Sanborn expects courts to bring on more senior judges to help with the backlog. One of the biggest challenges will be convincing a frightened public to resume its key role in the justice system, Sanborn said.
“There’s going to be a whole host of folks, most likely, who will claim, ‘I’m at risk and I don’t want to come to court and sit in a room full of strangers to resolve someone else’s dispute,’” he said.
Accommodating their concerns won’t be easy, Sanborn said.
“What if a juror insists on wearing a mask?” he said. “What do we do in that situation, put them in another room and have them appear on a monitor?”
Courts in the future will prioritize the use of remote technology, and make in-person hearings the exception.
“Telephone and video will be the presumption,” he said. “And you’re going to have to show the court why your case is different if you want to do it in person.”
Sanborn is confident trial lawyers will adjust.
“We take on other people’s problems,” he said. “A good lawyer should be skilled in dealing with adversity.”
David C. Miller, chair of the City, County and Local Government Law Section, couldn’t agree more. He said his 1,700 members have more than proved their ability to overcome adversity.
When COVID-19 first struck, local governments realized that under Florida law, they would not be able to form a quorum if they met remotely.
“To have a quorum, you must have the minimum amount of members present, physically, and that obviously just wasn’t going to work,” Miller said.
Miller said section members immediately approached Attorney General Ashley Moody to request an advisory opinion. Moody issued an opinion stating that Gov. Ron DeSantis has the authority to suspend the quorum requirement with an executive order.
“It was 30 minutes after she came out with the advisory opinion that the governor issued the executive order,” Miller said.
But the executive order didn’t address issues that virtual government meetings raise when it comes to complying with Florida’s rigorous Sunshine Law, Miller said.
Miller and City of Miami attorney Victoria Menendez, another section member, sprang into action.
“Vicky and some others said, we’ve got to fix this,” Miller said.
With Menendez and City of Margate attorney Janette Smith leading the effort, the section sponsored a webinar on Sunshine Law compliance and remote meetings, Miller said.
Miller points out that the March 27 Zoom conference was conducted before most of the legal community had grown comfortable with the new videoconferencing platform.
The webinar was a smash hit, Miller said.
“We put together, in the space of four days, a roundtable panel discussion,” he said. “We had a limited Zoom account and we maxed it out in seconds.”
Hundreds more viewers tuned in when the webinar was posted on the section’s Facebook page, Miller said.
The section was soon approached by the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section and the Environmental and Land Use Law Section to sponsor another COVID-19-related webinar on quasi-judicial hearings and videoconferencing, Miller said.
Imagine a planning and zoning board makes a controversial decision at a videoconference meeting, and that decision is appealed before a full city commission in a quasi-judicial hearing that is also held via videoconference, Miller said.
“You’ve got due process issues,” he said. “How are you going to do that and give everybody justice in a Zoom meeting?”
Despite the dry sounding topic, the webinar is another popular COVID-19 offering that the section posted on its Facebook page, Miller said.
“They had 874 live views of that, it was just swamped,” he said. “There’s a huge, huge interest in this, people are scrambling for any guidance, any help, for any collective wisdom on this.”
Many section members have struggled for the past few months to do local government work without access to professional office equipment or support staff, Miller said.
“The hardest thing has been, how do we do this when we don’t have a copier within reach, when I can’t call out the door and speak to an assistant, when I can’t get the assistant, and two paralegals, and the junior attorney together to get XYZ done,” Miller said.
The next biggest challenge, as government offices reopen, will be establishing a work routine that limits the persistent threat of exposure to a deadly virus, Miller said.
“People don’t want to come in, especially if they’re particularly vulnerable for one reason or another,” he said. “What’s the safe way to get people back together?”
If a solution is found, chances are, a government lawyer helped find it, Miller said.
“Our section members are determined to make it work,” he said. “They are used to working with limited resources in a fishbowl and taking on and accomplishing things that are very complicated, and just pushing it through.”