It has been an unusual couple of months. In addition to coronavirus news, and ever-changing social distancing guidelines, most of us have adapted to working remotely. During this time, we have learned some important things about ourselves, such as how valuable our support staff is in making us efficient; the resources unavailable online or on our computers; and which family members tend to be the most annoying, and why it was wise never to start a family business.
Fortunately for lawyers, in terms of both productivity and sanity, working at home is not the exclusive option. Governor Tony Evers’ Safer at Home Order deemed legal services an essential business, permitting our offices to remain open during the state’s general shutdown.
The State Bar of Wisconsin and other entities and individuals argued for classifying legal services as essential businesses, largely because issues related to criminal law, end-of-life matters and health care, and employment and housing rights are vital. While such legal services and advice are no doubt essential, that isn’t the whole story of why what lawyers do is essential in times of crisis.
Recent Client Issues
Before I explain my thoughts on why our profession is essential, I’ll share a partial list of client issues that came across this business lawyer’s desk the last two weeks of March:
Advising restaurants, bars, hotels, and other businesses about helping laid-off employees while keeping the business afloat;
Answering client questions on the extended leave law for coronavirus illnesses and business and school closures;
Counseling a client-landlord about a how to get a backed-up sewage system fixed; the problem, caused by a contractor’s mistake, affected three essential businesses;
Stipulating to more litigation deadline extensions than normally occur in a year;
Determining the shutdown’s effect on employees who are in the middle of the immigration process, which depends on remaining employed;
Advising a client call center when an IT employee, who touches hundreds of computers per week, tested positive for COVID-19;
Dealing with stalled real estate and business-sale closings; and
Advising on the $2 trillion stimulus bill and the benefits and eligibility for business clients.
I know what you are thinking right now: “Kevin, you had me at ‘backed-up sewage system!’”
I certainly don’t feel the above matters are more essential than other legal services that lawyers provide. In fact, legal advice addressing a person’s liberty and constitutional rights is undoubtedly one of the most important necessities. Likewise, certain civil legal issues, such as child custody issues and child protection, can’t simply be put off during times of crisis and, in fact, there is often a greater need for sound legal advice when everyone is confined to their homes.
Yet, the American dream that is also so closely related to our constitutional rights is greatly threatened when businesses are shut down, employees are laid off, schools and child-care centers are closed, and resources are not available to keep businesses and personal finances afloat. Combining that with the daily changes to the laws concerning unemployment, taxes, landlord-tenant matters, and stimulus packages creates a significant demand for lawyers to interpret those laws and advise clients accordingly.
Lawyers certainly aren’t the only essential businesses during this period. Our healthcare workers are on the front lines, and workers in the food-supply chain are not far behind. But the crucial services and advice lawyers provide justifies categorizing legal services as an essential business. Essentiality, however, is not limited to specific types of legal services. That got me thinking about why lawyers are essential as a group during this time.
Clients Appreciate Being Heard
In recent weeks, I’ve had clients express appreciation for the help we give, and the message has been consistent. It wasn’t the ultimate advice that made them feel reassured and less stressed. Rather, they expressed that after they called with their issue and regaled me with the story, they got off the phone and immediately felt better. “It was a relief just knowing you were on my side and were going to help me,” one of them said. “It was a huge weight taken off of me, and I could focus on other things,” said another.
These types of comments are not limited to catastrophic events. I am often amazed at how appreciative clients are, and how good they feel, when they leave my office before, in my opinion, I’ve done anything specific to help them. All I have done is listen to their story, talk to them, and reassured them I can help. Listening, taking on someone’s problem, and advocating for clients constitute valuable services that we tend to take for granted because we are often driven by results.
In times of crisis, personal stress is even higher. There are countless health, family, financial, and other reasons why people are currently burdened beyond their capacity. Many are near their breaking points. For people to be able to call their lawyer and unburden themselves with even one issue on their to-do list provides them a tremendous amount of relief from the stress they are feeling. Providing this service makes us truly essential.
We Must Take Care of Ourselves, Too
Of course, being essential can add to a lawyer’s own stress. Each of you has your own personal and business burdens on top of the weight you take on from clients. It is vital that you boost your own mental health and find ways for relief. Programs such as the State Bar’s Wisconsin Lawyers’ Assistance Program (WisLAP) are available for you, as are your colleagues who can share ideas on navigating this crisis.
You are essential as much for the intangible benefit you provide to clients as for the tangible advice you convey. It is equally essential that you preserve your own well-being. So, if the family you are cooped up with continues to stress you out, and you are not getting sufficient mental and emotional relief, then I’m happy to share my distractions with you and send you the photographs and engineering analyses from my client’s failed 5,000-gallon septic holding tank. Fortunately, we can do this remotely and far outside smelling distance.
WisLAP Can Help
The Wisconsin Lawyers’ Assistance Program (WisLAP) offers confidential assistance to lawyers, judges, law students, and their families who are suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse, anxiety, and other issues that affect their well-being and law practice.
WisLAP 24-hour helpline: (800) 543-2625
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255); suicidepreventionlifeline.org