New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Thursday that he was extending the “New York on PAUSE” order until May 15, so current social distancing guidelines will remain in place and all non-essential businesses will remain closed for at least four more weeks.
For many small firm and solo practitioners, this news comes at a time when help is already badly needed. Federal funds to assist small businesses have been exhausted and national unemployment has skyrocketed to historic levels. Lawyers are being let go, furloughed or forced to shut down their practice at the same time there is about to be an influx of backlogged cases and new filings brought on by the COVID-19 public health crisis.
June Castellano, co-chair of the NYSBA Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, is a solo practitioner in Rochester. She foresees that, as soon its technologically possible, the courts will expand their remote operations.
“The courts recognize the urgent need to ensure the safety of their personnel and the public,” she said. “This points toward a continued rollout of remote operations and I fully expect the courts will move forward in a way so that all courts will be covered and new cases can start as soon as its technologically possible.”
Currently, the New York State court system is processing pending cases via remote conferencing but no new non-essential actions or petitions can be filed, which has the potential to impact many practice areas of law.
Consider this hypothetical Family Court matter that Castellano described. A man, who is laid off in the midst of a divorce proceeding, wants to file a modification of support obligations because of a reduction in income. This filing is considered non-essential, and if relief is eventually granted, it can only be made retroactive to the date of the filing.
Castellano is hopeful that this pandemic will have some long-lasting positive impacts on the courts.
“Positively, the courts will be much more up-to-date in terms of technology,” she said. “This may allow them to be able to handle matters more efficiently and expeditiously in the months to come.”
Elizabeth E. Schlissel, of Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt, agrees that New York PAUSE has forced law firms to utilize technology in new ways in order to continue business operations.
“Remote operations have been technologically refined to facilitate a broad array of legal services,” said Schlissel. “Firms and courts are utilizing platforms such as Skype and Zoom to conduct virtual meetings, depositions, mediations and court appearances.”
Schlissel said that while law firms will continue to experience serious financial challenges, they have quickly adjusted the way they practice. This has allowed firms to provide legal services and meet clients’ needs in the new coronavirus environment
Richard K. Zuckerman, of Lamb & Barnosky in Melville, said his firm has been very fortunate in that those who were not used to working remotely “have taken to it quite well.” Also, he said the firm’s clients have been quite understanding.
From a professional perspective, Zuckerman noted that morale at the firm is “quite high” and that its labor and employment law, education law and trusts and estates practices are extremely busy.
However, Zuckerman said he has had a number of conversations with solo practitioners who are having a really tough time with the technology. He said they don’t know how to use Zoom or other platforms and, with the courts closed, are having trouble making ends meet.
Zuckerman called the thought that technology-related issues might result in the financial devastation or shutdown of law firms unable to adapt to the virtual legal workplace “frightening” and “horrifying.”
Christian Nolan, NYSBA’s senior writer, contributed to this report.