Small Firms Deal With Effects of Coronavirus as First NY Lawyer Dies

By Katthleen Lynn

Richard Ernest Weber

The legal profession experienced its first loss due to coronavirus when Richard Weber died Wednesday.

He’s not the first lawyer affected by this virus.

Feeling symptoms that looked like coronavirus, Anne LaBarbera, a partner in a two-person New York City law firm, stopped coming into her office in early March.

“It was a mild case, but the issue with us is we don’t want to spread it to other people,” said LaBarbera, of Thomas LaBarbera. She’s feeling better now, but she and her partner, Kat Thomas, are still working from home. “We’re not going be part of the problem,” LaBarbera said.

Her concerns have arisen as the legal profession continues to grapple with the virus. A Supreme Court judge in Queens, Justice Margaret McGowan, has been diagnosed with the illness, becoming the first reported case in the judiciary, according to Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the New York Courts. A lawyer who works in New York City and lives in Westchester County was the first person in the state who apparently contracted COVID-19 through “community spread” — that is, without a known source of exposure. The attorney, Lawrence Garbuz, is in the hospital but reported to be recovering.

Like LaBarbera, solo practitioners and small-firm lawyers are facing the harsh – and still uncertain – realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the most serious cases, like LaBarbera’s, lawyers are going into quarantine after feeling sick or being exposed to the virus. But even lawyers who remain healthy worry about the disruptions to their practices, at a time when court activity has been severely restricted and face-to-face meetings have been limited or halted.

“Who’s going to close real estate deals these days? Who’s going to be doing estate plans or wills?” asked Lee Michaels, a personal-injury attorney at a four-lawyer firm in Auburn, and an adjunct professor at Syracuse University College of Law. “Nobody will go to a deposition — nobody. You can’t move a case forward.”

Phyllis Kamysek, a real estate lawyer in lower Manhattan, has begun wearing masks and gloves during real estate closings, and is trying to limit the number of people at any one meeting. For example, a typical closing might involve the buyer, the seller, the title company representative and  lawyers for the seller, buyer and lender — a total of six people. Now, she is trying to get people to sign documents outside the office and send them in, so that there are only a few people in the room. She feels bad, however, that FedEx and UPS workers will still be out working, exposed to the virus.

Kamysek says she expects most imminent closings to go forward, because home buyers are in the process of leaving their old places and need a place to live. But she also expects real estate transactions to slow down in the coming months, because potential buyers are likely to stop looking and owners don’t want strangers in their homes. That will mean fewer contracts and closings for her to handle. She’s not sure how she will deal with a drop in income.

“It’s weighing on my mind,” said Kamysek, who has two employees, a lawyer and a secretary.

She’s not alone in worrying about the financial fallout of the pandemic. LaBarbera specializes in entertainment work, which she expects to dry up as film and television production and concerts are canceled.

“You’ve got Chris Martin playing guitar on YouTube – you don’t need a contract for that,” she said.

Her partner, Thomas, specializes in plaintiff litigation involving sexual abuse. “The biggest part of our income is settlements” of the abuse cases, LaBarbera said. Law firms that have to wait for settlements, she added, are “always planning long-term” in terms of managing income.

”We feel we are going to be able to pay ourselves through the crisis,” LaBarbera said. The partners have no other employees.

“I definitely think payment is going to be a little scarce for a while. In solo  practice, often you go through ups and downs,” said Richard Ferrante, a criminal defense attorney in White Plains. Ferrante was self-quarantined for five days after being exposed to a lawyer with the virus in a courtroom. During that time, he relied on other attorneys to make court appearances for him.

Some of his work is court-assigned, and Ferrante expects there to be less of that while court operations are limited.

Asked how his firm might deal with a loss of income, Michaels said, “We may end up just paying our staff, our rent, our heating bill and our professional insurance and not have much else.”

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