Yesterday the ABA published Opinion 498 on virtual legal practice. A year after the pandemic began, the ABA statement seeks to make the virtual practice look like a big, scary monster that lawyers should avoid or approach with so much fear that they are doomed to fail from the start. What a missed opportunity. Because if the ABA were relevant at all, their opinion would be as follows:
As the legal profession nears the one year anniversary of the pandemic, the ABA recognizes and celebrates attorneys who have kept the wheels of justice turning. Fortunately, despite the long-standing refusal of most bar associations to prepare or encourage attorneys to serve clients remotely, most attorneys realized that the only way to protect and defend clients was to improve their online game. Within a month or less, thousands of attorneys who only superficially used the internet for marketing purposes but didn’t actually serve clients accepted the challenge and showed up for hearings, cases, and meetings at Zoom. Now, a year later, state courts across the country have moved online, saving customers and court systems hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the meantime, customer communication has not been affected. The limitations of not being able to meet clients in person led to unprecedented creativity as attorneys looked for ways to connect and calm clients. From virtual pop-up conferencing to free consultation for pandemic corporations to a greater emphasis on producing valuable customer content, attorneys simply pick up the phone to check in and eagerly, skillfully, and fearlessly guide their clients through challenging times.
In addition, after decades of trying to fix the lack of courtesy in the profession, most lawyers showed heart. Although times have been stressful especially for maternal lawyers, many areas of the profession today have a little more respect for what maternal lawyers can do (although there is still a long way to go). The lawyers had the backs of their staff, including those with special challenges who work from home and provide support to families who do juggling, by exploring opportunities for tutoring and home schooling support. And we have all become a bit more tolerant and carefree about the inevitable disasters that are helping to leave what is known for uncharted territory.
Most gratifyingly, when the world closed and we operated in a room with no ethical rules to dictate every move, the legal system didn’t fall apart. The lawyers used common sense and discretion – tools that are always available but never recognized by regulators. Courts and agencies advocated online hearings, transactions also went smoothly with online notaries, and there was no mass looting of escrow accounts as checks had to be deposited electronically from escrow accounts. There was also no increase in UPL claims or an influx of lawyers practicing remotely trying to represent clients outside their jurisdiction. In fact, the only wrong steps taken during the pandemic were idiotic regulators who, for example, insisted on disciplinary action against the lawyer who disguised himself as the Grim Reaper last spring in an attempt to raise awareness of the dangers of the coronavirus sharpen.
Despite all the benefits that the past year has brought, we still miss each other. As it turns out, we are nostalgic for our coworkers and stand face to face for lunch, as well as coffee and compassion lessons. We are human, after all, and even the most withdrawn of us crave the connection and camaraderie that working in this profession can bring.
We can’t wait to see each other again. But when the time comes for lawyers to meet face-to-face again, the ABA won’t be with you. With this statement we announce that we will dissolve the organization with effect from today. At 142, the ABA has had a good run, but it’s time to relax. The pandemic has taught even the most cumbersome and bureaucratic of us that we can trust judges and most lawyers to do what is right without our help and to act in the best interests of the legal profession and the public. We have learned that, like coronavirus, we lawyers are not immune, nor are we immune to the economic, social and political forces and consumer demand that drive every other industry and force changes in legal practice. After all, the pandemic has humiliated us. When grassroots groups of lawyers and vendors not affiliated with bar events showed up with various programs that introduced a rainbow of new voices, we eventually saw that maybe only the ABA was actually part of the problem.
On the other side of this period of darkness, a bright world of possibilities awaits. We trust that the new generations of lawyers will transform the profession in ways unimaginable, making it stronger and more relevant than ever. And so our job is done.