While technology makes remote lawyering possible, isolation and uncertainty abound
'The biggest challenge I’ve had — and which I’ve heard from other young lawyers — was showing my firm that I was still extremely productive'
The novelty of working from home is losing some of its shine as Florida lawyers mourn the loss of conference rooms and office comradery — and grow increasingly nervous about a COVID-19 recession.
Scott Holtz, a partner in the Palm Beach County firm, Prestia-Holtz, P.A., has spent weeks patiently shuffling a laptop from patio, to kitchen, to dining room, trying to be an unobtrusive guest.
“A month ago, a drainpipe burst in our kitchen under the floor, and literally our entire kitchen was taken out,” he said. “So we’ve been living with my mother in West Palm Beach.”
Holtz’s wife, a speech pathologist for the Palm Beach County schools, has been working remotely from the same home, monitoring virtual classrooms and conducting online parent conferences. When the work day is done, they share a guest bedroom.
Florida Bar Board of Governors member Paige Greenlee, a sole practitioner from Tampa, has spent years of Bar service championing high-tech. But after nearly two months, she calls working from home a “necessary evil.”
She has occasionally returned for brief stints to the brick-and-mortar office that she likes to maintain to separate her personal and professional lives.
“I have always been an advocate for remote work, and will continue to be — but it is just mentally difficult for me to do it every day,” she said. “It is sad when you get excited to wave at the mailman or the Amazon delivery person.”
Greenlee felt the same pangs when she traded the energy and social possibilities of a large firm for the independence of hanging out her own shingle. She continues to enjoy working on her patio with her dog, Juno, by her side. But Greenlee worries that working from home is amplifying a collective fear about the economic downturn.
“This would all be difficult under any circumstances — but we are also all doing it in isolation,” she said.
Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division President Santo DiGangi is hoping that the crisis will prove high-tech’s value to the skeptics in the profession.
“The biggest challenge I’ve had — and which I’ve heard from other young lawyers — was showing my firm that I was still extremely productive and able to perform important and substantial work remotely, and usually more efficiently,” he said.
But DiGangi also worries that his home office has made him too sedentary, and isolation from his comrades has sometimes darkened his mood.
“I think a lot of folks are having similar issues and this is why the YLD is rebranding May’s Health and Wellness month to focus on these types of COVID-19 related issues,” he said. “We want to show lawyers around the state and country how other lawyers are dealing with maintaining their physical, mental, and even family health during this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, not all the news has been bad for Prestia-Holtz, P.A.
The firm recently received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that Holtz secured with the help of a community banker friend who belongs to his business networking group.
Many of Holtz’s lawyer friends, who applied through large commercial banks only to be disappointed, are expressing their exasperation with the program on social media, Hotlz said.
“I think it’s an example of community banks working,” he said. “I think, in principle, the idea of the PPP is a really smart one, but the way it’s worked has been terrible, it’s been a disaster.”
The lifeline came as Holtz and his partner were on the verge of reducing their own salaries, and cutting the pay, or even laying off, a highly valued paralegal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the viability of many of the small businesses the firm represents, and the firm is feeling it in the bottom line, Holtz said.
“I don’t know that we’ve lost clients, but we definitely have clients who have been dragging their heels on paying their last bill,” he said. “And we’ve definitely seen a decrease in new business coming in either from existing clients or from new clients that we would expect to see, based on past performance.”
Holtz said his best guess is that the firm can weather the current conditions for “probably another two months.”
Holtz and his partner are considering allowing the paralegal to work from their closed office, where she will have easier access to scanners and copiers and other full-sized office equipment.
Technology has made a remote law firm possible, Holtz said, but he believes he will always need a professional suite.
“Look, a business owner is not going to want to meet with you at a Starbucks to talk about some issues they want to discuss,” he said.