States at Loggerheads Over Whether Law Firms Are ‘Essential’

Mixed messaging from government officials have law firms closed or working from home.

For as much time and attention paid to the coronavirus pandemic by local and major news organizations, several aspects of the disease remain shrouded in mystery. The mortality rate originally ranged between 3% and 4% by health experts. But with more testing now taking place, the rate has since declined. COVID-19 typically produces symptoms that are similar to influenza, yet for many of the people who’ve tested positive, the typical manifestations of the disease are often non-existent. The contagion seems to target elderly individuals and those who have pre-existing health conditions, yet curiously, young children are largely left unaffected.

With most governors across the U.S. issuing stay-at-home advisories and mandating “non-essential” businesses to close their doors temporarily, the response aimed to contain the outbreak is leaving attorneys at law with another question: Does my firm provide services that qualify as essential?

The short answer? It depends. As noted by ABA Journal, several states have included law firms on the exemption list, meaning they can continue to remain open, although they may have to abide by certain restrictions. Among the states where firms are permitted to continue operations – Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania.

State of IllinoisIllinois is among a handful of states where law firms are considered essential business operations.

Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, said it makes sense that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzer decided to include law firms, as her Chicago-based clients are in urgent need of guidance.

“What makes us essential is this virus has lots of legal issues associated with it,” Holmes told ABA Journal. “Clients need help.”

No clear direction from feds

The federal government, through the Department of Homeland Security, has also issued guidance regarding essential and non-essential businesses. Among those considered indispensable to consumer needs include pharmacies, big-box stores, supermarkets, daycare centers, hardware stores and auto-repair shops. But the list has no clearly delineated references to law firms or legal services as being essential or non-essential, leaving it up to the states – specifically governors – to decide for themselves.

Among those governors believing law firms ought to not be given clearance is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. In her executive order that went into effect March 24, the only businesses deemed essential were those who dealt with “critical infrastructure or whose services were “necessary to sustain or protect life.” Law firms, in her view, did not meet that test.

Opinions have run the gamut, from attorneys themselves as well as the public at large, as to what does and does not qualify as an essential business. In New Hampshire, for example, hair and beauty salons are not permitted to accept new or long-standing clients during the shutdown, but they’re free to do so in Arizona, NBC News reported.

Firms erring on the side of caution

But even in states where law firms have been given the green light to continue with business as usual, many are taking precautions to stay safe and avoid exposure. Holmes told ABA Journal that most of her firm’s attorneys in their Chicago offices are working from their homes and communicating via the internet and telephone. The same goes for Linda Doyle, partner and general counsel for McDermott Will & Emery. The only exception, in Doyle’s case, are those attorneys who drop by the office to pick up important documents, memos, or correspondences.

As previously referenced, the federal government has generally left it up to the states to decide what businesses’ products or services are too important not to have readily available. But in the event that the White House issues a nationwide stay-at-home order, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez believes legal services should be exempted in all 50 states. She indicated as much in a missive written to Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs.

“People need access to essential legal services during an emergency,” Martinez wrote. “Lawyers help ensure that our nation’s foundation of laws remains strong, especially as fast-changing orders, directives, and laws are issued … [L]awyers can help Americans as they address unexpected challenges and solve problems surfacing in the wake of the spread of the coronavirus.”

What is the end game?

These are unsettling times for everyone, regardless of their industry. Perhaps the biggest question mark of all is when life will return to normal. Health officials are encouraged by the fact that social distancing seems to be working, but at the end of the day, business owners – and the public at large – are longing for some level of certainty.

Afinety offers the cloud network solutions that you can rely on in tumultuous times like these. Our cloud network delivers fast, dependable, secure and reliable connectivity so partners, associates, and paralegals can get just as much work done from their home bedroom as they would from the law firm boardroom. In short, if your office doors are closed, your work can go on with the Afinety Cloud Platform. Contact us today to learn more.