From closed schools and quarantines to tanking financial markets and travel bans, the fast-spreading new coronavirus is disrupting lives and livelihoods around the globe.
And while ethics rules and client service may not seem like the most pressing kind of concern right now, there are steps lawyers can take to calm anxious clients, ensure deadlines are met and otherwise reduce the risk that a legal slip-up during the outbreak will turn into a malpractice suit.
“The rules are the same, our professional standards are the same, even if the context is a little different right now,” said Allison Martin Rhodes, deputy general counsel at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP. “It’s about looking at the delivery of service from top to bottom, and continuing to represent clients’ interests in all the ways we can through this.”
Here are four things to put on your coronavirus ethics checklist.
Be Vigilant About Your Calendar
As anyone who works in the professional liability arena will tell you, routine scheduling failures and missed filing deadlines trigger a significant percentage of legal malpractice claims.
And with the coronavirus forcing people around the country to break their daily routines and cancel plans, the risk that distracted lawyers and staff will overlook a court alert email or forget to put an entry into calendaring software is high.
With all the other things on their minds, lawyers should make time to double-check that routine calendaring tasks and email checks are getting done on time and with the same level of attention, malpractice experts say.
“In stressful situations, this is the kind of thing that gets overlooked, due dates and schedules and e-filing,” said Shannon Sprinkle, managing partner of Copeland Stair Kingma & Lovell LLP.
With many in the legal industry now working remotely and losing the face-to-face check-ins with colleagues, “You must make sure you don’t have any gaps in this area,” Sprinkle said.
Do a Check on Your Conflicts System
Among a number of tech-related tasks associated with out-of-office workers, ethics and professional liability experts are urging firms to ensure that their conflicts-checking software is working — and still being used for every new client and matter.
In its recent coronavirus guidance sheet, BigLaw malpractice insurance mutual company Attorneys’ Liability Assurance Society also suggested that firms take the extra step to clearly communicate to lawyers and staff their expectations for remote work and consider getting others up to speed on using conflicts systems.
“Not only must the conflicts-checking software work remotely, but the people responsible for running the conflicts analysis, conducting prospective client due diligence, and processing and approving new matters must be able to effectively complete these tasks remotely,” the insurer said. “And make sure there are backups trained to do these critical tasks in case existing personnel become ill.”
Hear Your Clients' Health Concerns
While lawyers shouldn’t play doctor, the coronavirus is putting many in the uncomfortable position of having to weigh the possible consequences of normally routine tasks, like going to court, taking meetings or flying to a conference.
In terms of similarly anxious clients, ethics experts say lawyers should keep the lines of communication open, and take seriously any concerns clients have about traveling for their cases, being in crowded office buildings or courts, or anything else related to fears about transmission of the disease.
If other options are available — doing a deposition over Skype instead of face-to-face, for example — lawyers have a duty to make the appropriate requests, as long as they’re still pursuing their clients’ matters and giving feedback on any possible drawbacks.
Holland & Knight LLP partner Dayna Underhill, whose practice includes counseling firms on malpractice risk, said that’s especially important for clients who are elderly or may have health issues.
In addition to fulfilling your ethical duties, those kinds of efforts go a long way toward showing clients you’re looking at more than the basics of legal representation, and thus win you some goodwill in the event things don’t work out.
“As lawyers, we handle the human side of client relations every day, and part of the goal is to take their temperature down when we can,” Underhill said.
Connect With Insurers
Most lawyers aren’t looking for reasons to call up malpractice and business insurance carriers. But the unknowns of the coronavirus outbreak and the potential scope of its disruptions make it a good time to tap their risk-avoidance knowledge.
In addition to answering any policy-specific questions about business losses or client concerns, insurers can give firms guidance built on years of experience responding to hurricanes or other catastrophic events. They can also act as sounding boards for firms when it comes to making changes to outbreak response plans or implementing new policies on remote work and cybersecurity.
Insurer representatives may also have up-to-the-minute information gathered from other law firms about special procedures or client communications they’re employing that the insurer can share. And in the event a legal error is made amid the outbreak, a prompt notification to the carrier will also help ensure that coverage is there if a malpractice suit is threatened or filed.
“The insurance companies have a huge interest in law firms having business continuity and knowing they’re handing these things appropriately, and, hopefully, not seeing claims coming out of this in the future,” Rhodes said.
--Editing by Aaron Pelc and Alanna Weissman.