Coronavirus Q&A: Buchalter's Appellate Practice Chair

By Khorri Atkinson
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Law360 (November 25, 2020, 5:29 PM EST) -- In this edition of Coronavirus Q&A, Buchalter APC's new appellate practice chair Mary-Christine "M.C." Sungaila discusses the challenges of taking over a new appellate team while working remotely, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the 14 attorneys she's overseeing, and the firm's handling of virtual proceedings and adjustment to an uncertain future.

Mary-Christine "M.C." Sungaila

Sungaila, who's based in Orange County, California, joined Buchalter in August after working as a partner and co-chair of Haynes and Boone LLP's appellate practice group for five years. Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently appointed her to a three-year term on the court's Advisory Committee on Rules and Internal Operating Procedures. Sungaila shared her perspective on taking over a practice group in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic as part of a series of interviews Law360 is conducting with prominent lawyers regarding the legal and business challenges posed by the global public health crisis, which has affected more than 12 million Americans.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The virus has disrupted the way how we work. What have the last few months been like for the firm's appellate practice, and how has it been handling cases remotely?

I'm the firm's first appellate practice chair, even though it existed for more than 30 years. The biggest change I've seen directly has been the use of remote oral arguments. No one is traveling to have arguments in person. Zoom oral arguments with appellate panels have a slightly different impact than remote arguments before a district court in a trial or on motions because generally you're dealing with just one judge. On the appellate level, we have panels with three or more judges, and each of the judges is in different locations. That affects the ability to persuade the judges because they're not sitting on a bench next to each other and able to sort of bounce back and forth with questions with each other as they used to.

I think that lends a different feel to argument. Just mastering persuasion through the virtual medium is very different than in-person argument. That's been the biggest change in terms of how we're handling cases.

A lot of our work is in writing and briefs, which can be prepared and filed pretty much from anywhere. That part of the practice hasn't been significantly affected.

What about the pace of the firm's workload?

Trial court litigation slowed down a little bit earlier this year because there were very few hearings. But my practice, and my prior firm, did not feel a change or slowdown unlike what trial attorneys experienced. We may next year, or further down the line, if that period of lack of trial court proceedings shows up.

What's your outlook for your practice for the next few months?

The firm overall, just like our department, has been hiring new partners. We're growing and I don't see that changing in the immediate future.

Not necessarily as a result of COVID, but from my hiring we have taken the opportunity to deepen the bench by hiring another associate. We've created a fellowship program for new law school graduates to give them an opportunity to become exposed to appellate work and for us to train the next generation of appellate lawyers.

What are you hearing from clients in regard to legal issues or challenges they're facing that are arising specifically because of COVID?

There were some pretty clear areas where appeal could happen. They include employment to insurance coverage issues in regards to business interruption; college tuition refund lawsuits that are percolating as potential class actions around the country; privacy issues that have arisen from people working remotely; and potential new risks posed by virus lockdowns and downstream impacts.

Getting ahead of those, I'm looking at them holistically and strategically across jurisdictions. As appellate lawyers, we don't take one case at a time but look at a number of current and potential court cases in various jurisdictions and work with general counsel to examine how to manage them collectively.

You just took over Buchalter's appellate practice in the middle of a pandemic. How has your day-to-day personal and work life changed?

One, which I think is the most surprising, is that there are more opportunities to have more personal conversations with clients and co-counsel because you're all working from home and going through some common things. Pets, family and things like that get discussed a lot more, and sometimes when you're on Zoom meetings you can meet the furry creatures in the family. Even though you're remote, particularly with people you've worked with over the years, you can get to know them in new ways and be more close with them than you would have been if you're just working at the office.

The rhythm of the workday also changed a bit. Before COVID, appellate lawyers tend to work from home when they're working very intensely on a brief to minimize distraction. But now, since we're working from home every day, it allows you to be more focused. 

My dog is my pilot and co-worker, and we get to take a couple walks throughout the day to kind of clear our heads. Replacing the commute with walks with dog, I think, is one of the biggest changes personally.

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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