Law in the Times of Corona – A Series (Part I)

Part I: Law, interrupted.

This is a series written by Sherif Rizk, principal lawyer and owner of Rizk Law Office. In this 3-part series, he describes the opportunities and challenges faced by lawyers and the legal industry in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and shares his thoughts on how the legal industry can navigate forward from this situation.

The month of March 2020 started out like any other month. The day-to-day grind of getting to the office, catching up on emails and deadlines, and following up with clients and potential clients – all part of a usual process that my firm and many others like it do on a day-in and day-out basis.

It was all happening in the shadow of a new buzzword that was becoming louder and louder with each passing day – Coronavirus. The word conjured up some questions, mainly out of curiosity about what it was, and what it can do if caught. But there was never, in my mind, any questions about how this would affect my day-to-day – it still felt like a problem within the medical industry, which I was not a part of.

It took less than two weeks for that buzzword to become the primary focus of not just my business, but the entire world. By March 13, the highly unusual decision of shutting down my physical location and shifting my practice to work from home had become not just a preference, but a necessity.

And although I was no medical expert, I knew that the calls for a shutdown of two weeks was likely going to be extended several more times. The shift to a home-based practice would have to be a long-term plan, not just a short-term one.

Day 1: Focus!

The physical shift to a home-based practice was not as complex as I thought it would be. The most difficult aspect was finding a way to transport physical files from my office location to my home-based office. The physical files, although important, were not absolutely necessary, since my office was already mostly paperless prior to this outbreak.

The real challenge was running a profitable and efficient practice while at home. The distractions and motivation to work can be difficult when the space you’ve deemed to be your comfort is mixed with where you are to do your work.

It was at that point where I needed to find a way to focus my attention on the files. There were some desperate calls from clients worried about how their matters were going to proceed, and difficult conversations were had about how this would affect their case.

It was in that moment that I realized why I needed to focus. Even if clients would not be able to see their matter proceed to court, I realized that I had to do anything and everything that I was able to do to move their matter forward.

In some situations, this meant a reasonable and well-negotiated settlement. In other situations, it meant preparing for the next court appearance, whenever that happens. The focus of my practice at home became moving every matter forward in any way that I can, and where going to court was not an option, to work with the client to find an option that would bring about answers.

Navigating your own fears

All around me, I saw clients (and other lawyers) openly expressing genuine concern about how they would navigate their lives through this global pandemic. It was clear that the fears that people had touched on so many different aspects of life.

Some expressed financial concerns, while others expressed other concerns – like how this would affect their children’s education, or what would happen to their immune-compromised relatives if they caught the virus. I could not escape the realization that I had those fears as well – how will this outbreak affect my practice’s business? And what would happen if a loved one is infected?

The first month of working at home, I allowed these fears to keep me up at night. Staying up late and working on files was how I dealt with the worries – I thought that as long as I had work to keep me occupied, I would have no reason to worry.

It was a mistake to think that I could escape those thoughts. The more I worked, the more I found myself demoralized and unable to stay focused on the tasks at hand. Emotionally, I felt myself “check out” – I could not see the point of continuing to work in the face of so many difficulties.

As time progressed, I realized that I could not keep this up. I had to make a change, even if it is slight and small, to shake things up and regain my focus. Near the end of May, I imposed on myself a four-day “electronics cleanse” – I was away from my computer and email, and had made arrangements with my associate to take any urgent calls if anything came up. Instead of spending all day thinking about files and stressing about the state of the world’s affairs, I chose to focus on my own thought processes and coping mechanisms to see if they were serving my needs during this critical time.

I found that thought processes are more important than finding solutions. A thought process is, to me, a more tailored approach to the numerous and various problems we face in our lives. It can be a thought process that calls for a plan of action, or it can be a thought process that simply acknowledges the various emotions we face. If we only look at everything we experience in life as a problem that demands a solution, we are bound to fail ourselves at some point. We were simply not built to fix all the problems the world faces by ourselves.

One thought process I also learned to develop is to be thankful, despite the circumstances. And  although this global pandemic has brought a lot of devastation, economic disruption and worries, it has also brought an opportunity for me to reflect on the good things I have in my life. This is not to say that I have no reason to worry, but it reframes my perspective on why I need to continue to work hard and to do the best that I can.

It takes hard work and effort to preserve the good in this world – if we continue to work hard and persevere through the difficult times, we will preserve the good, and seek to build on that which we have already built.

In summary; the breakout of the pandemic was an interruptive experience to my practice. In some respects, that interruption was alarming; and in other respects, it was necessary.

See part 2 for reflections on the next phase of the pandemic.

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