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Zooming through the pandemic, 17th Judicial Circuit surpasses 10,000 remote hearings

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17th Circuit Town HallThe 17th Circuit has conducted more than 10,300 Zoom hearings since the onset of the pandemic involving more than 233,000 participants, Chief Judge Jack Tuter told the some 200 Florida lawyers who logged in August 10 to a Florida Bar Virtual Town Hall forum.

“So that’s the hallmark of a program that’s been successful,” Chief Judge Tuter said. “Without Zoom or some other video platform, whatever it might be, we would be having a cataclysmic conversation right now.”

Tuter told those listening in to the second of 20 forums President Dori Foster-Morales is hosting across the state that every division in the 17th Circuit “is pretty much up to speed,” and the only thing they have not been able to do so far is conduct jury trials.

Foster-Morales opened the Town Hall by saying the Bar is focused on assisting its members cope with the pandemic and assisting in the profession’s recovery.

“Personally, as a practicing lawyer, wife, mother, and small-firm owner, I know how complicated life has become during this pandemic,” Foster-Morales said. “The Florida Bar cannot solve all of our collective problems, but we can help with timely updates and information.”

She reminded participants The Florida Bar has built a comprehensive COVID-19 web page that offers the latest news, from Supreme Court orders, CLE, and practice management guides, to legal aid and consumer resources. “COVID-19, the New Coronavirus, Information and Resources,” may be accessed at floridabar.org/covid19 or through a banner at the top of floridabar.org.

Featured prominently are links to the latest from the Bar News, as well as to all of the trial and appellate court websites so members can check for orders and to the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers site so members may check their county clerk’s page. It also links to federal acts and guidance from relevant federal agencies, and links to other federal agencies and their updates that may assist Florida Bar members.

Florida Lawyers HelplineFoster-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).

At a time when many lawyers are struggling and experiencing feelings of isolation, it’s “okay to get help,” Foster-Morales said.

Panelist Robert Vaughan of the Broward County Bar Association said lawyering is a people-centric industry where a lot of business is generated through networking.

“We are a service industry focused on assisting and helping clients,” Vaughan said. “So, when there is something that impacts our ability to connect with colleagues and referral sources and connect to the very courts you are supposed to be working with and/or folks you are doing transactions with. . . it is going to increase the stress of practice.”

To help, he said, voluntary bars are creating ways to bring people together for substantive discussions or just to connect.

“Just to reach out virtually to say, ‘Hey, I’m here,’ and hear what is going on with other people so we know we are not alone,” Vaughan said.

Karina Rodrigues of the Broward County Hispanic Bar Association said all the voluntary bars in the 17th Circuit have been working together to provide connection points for their members.

Some of the events have included virtual happy hours, cooking and Zumba classes, and wine tastings.

Kemie King of the Broward County Women Lawyers Association said statewide FAWL has created two programs “to make it more fun for people to not feel isolated.” The Grow Your Village program helps lawyer moms who are interested in finding ways to help each other make it through this summer by putting them in contact with other interested moms in their area. The other program is Help a Sister Out, which hooks up lawyer moms so they can help each other out, be it picking up a few groceries or providing hearing coverage or other work-related assistance.

Chief Judge Tuter said he expects Zoom conferences to continue even after courthouses reopen.

“I’m feeling right now this is maybe one of the best things to come from this horrible virus for the court system is the performance of these video platforms,” Tuter said.

Jeff Adelman of ABOTA’s Ft. Lauderdale Chapter agreed.

“Once we got into it, people realized it’s not the same as being in person but pretty darn close,” said Adelman, adding the time and money savings for conducting a 10-minute hearing without having to go to the courthouse benefits everyone.

Judge Robert W. Lee said for the courts, the key has been to be flexible.

“One of the things we did in county court is eliminate motion calendars so that everything is special set, even down to 10-minute slots so you can choose exactly when you want to come,” Lee said.

The biggest challenge, he said, is the set dockets that come with arraignments in criminal court and the small claims calendar.

“We have started to do those in 15-minute increments to accommodate schedules,” Lee said.

Tuter said civil litigators need to focus on alternative dispute resolution, mediation, arbitration, and other ways to move their cases forward or consider participating in a jury trial over the internet because once the courts are open again, due process cases will take priority.

“People have been sitting in jail since March unable to make a bond in many cases,” Tuter said. “We have at least 18 murder cases that are backed up now that need hundreds of jurors just to select the juries.”

He said it’s unrealistic that any civil case is going to see a jury trial this year and it may be into “the summer of next year before you start to see jury trials.”

Foster-Morales said lawyers need to zero in on being flexible, creative, patient, and professional.

“I always believe we as a profession have the unique ability to do all of those things,” Foster-Morales said. “I have a lot of confidence in our profession.”

The next in the series of President Foster-Morales’ Virtual Town Hall forums is set for the 13th Circuit on August 11 beginning at noon. That will be followed up with a Town Hall August 13 for the 19th Circuit beginning at 5:30 p.m.

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