A COVID-19 Checklist for Attorneys
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
As schools close, major corporations send their workforces home, and local governments contemplate curfews and lockdowns, the novel coronavirus is impacting nearly every corner of community in America — including the legal community here in Florida.
Like anyone else, lawyers must tend to all of the pandemic’s disruptions to daily life: changes in travel plans, transitioning to home offices, grocery shopping for essentials, helping aging family members prepare, and so on.
But in the midst of all these things, a lawyer’s ethical duties still stand, unwavering in the face of a mounting public health crisis.
Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company wants to help its insured lawyers understand their obligations in the context of COVID-19, keeping client service, compliance, and risk management top of mind.
To that end, we’ve created the following COVID-19 Checklist for Florida Lawyers. While it cannot take the place of a careful review of the ethics rules and applicable laws, we hope it will serve as a general guide for thinking through the challenge of client representation during a public health crisis.
Clear and careful communication is at the heart of ethical client service. Stay in touch with your clients. If your work situation is changing (transitioning to telecommuting, for example), let your clients know. If they have any special concerns about their own health and safety (for example, elderly or immunocompromised clients concerned about court appearances, mediations, or traveling to your firm), talk through those. Offer to explore alternatives wherever possible, taking care to explain any potential advantages or disadvantages.
- Notify clients of any changes to your travel plans, work location, contact information, or availability.
- Remind clients of any important calendar items that might require their attention or presence during the next few weeks.
- Reach out to assess any special health concerns that might affect COVID-19’s most vulnerable populations.
- Stay on top of email.
Court Calendars & Scheduling
A disproportionate number of the claims made against attorneys each year can be traced back to simple scheduling errors. Missing court appearances, overlooking filing deadlines, and failures to provide notice — these things can happen to otherwise diligent lawyers, even in the best of times. During a pandemic, when emotions run high and routines get interrupted, there may be an increased risk of calendaring issues.
- If transitioning from an e-calendar on your work device to a home device, ensure there are no gaps in data. Don’t assume that the events from one device automatically copy to the other, even if you use a cloud-based calendaring system. (It is all too easy to accidentally add an event to a device’s “local” calendar, not realizing it failed to copy to the cloud.)
- Double-check your calendar, paying careful attention to the next two to four weeks. Think through your obligations in light of COVID-19 and any closures that might occur.
- Stay tuned to announcements from local, state, and federal courts.
- Make an effort to find out how COVID-19 may change opposing counsel’s contact information or availability.
- If working from home, ensure you have secure access to any data or information you may need to meet any e-filing deadlines.
- If you receive an alert that courts are issuing continuances for pending matters in light of COVID-19, confirm whether your pending matters fall within the confines of those continuances.
- Remember: even if courts limit their operations while remaining officially open, filing deadlines and statutes of limitation are not modified or tolled.
Depending on your practice area, your law firm’s resources, and the extent to which you were already set up to work from home, you may encounter a significant gulf between your office’s technological capabilities and those of your personal home office.
When making this transition, think through everything that the coming weeks will require of you. Can you meet your obligations using the software and devices that will be available to you from home? Are you able to access secure data remotely without compromising client confidentiality or security?
- Be diligent in running conflicts checks, especially when working away from home.
- Work with your office’s IT team or vendor to ensure the security of any VPN or remote-work technology you might plan to use.
- Ensure that all of your work at home will be backed up — and that those backups will be accessible by other members of your practice (when appropriate) should you fall ill.
- If you will need to teleconference with clients and/or team members, make sure everyone has access to the same remote conferencing platform and understands how to use it.
Beware Fraud & Cybercrime
Cybersecurity experts report that criminals are already seeking to exploit the current coronavirus situation, perhaps in ways that even the foremost authorities haven’t yet anticipated. Given that cybercrime has emerged as one of the most significant threats facing Florida lawyers with respect to potential malpractice claims, it will be critical that every practitioner remain vigilant in the weeks and months ahead.
Real estate transactions may be especially vulnerable to attack, as some closings set for March and April are now being rescheduled or moved to virtual / remote closings.
- All Florida lawyers practicing in real estate law should be advised that bad actors may look to capitalize on a last-minute change of plans in order to misdirect wire transfers or intercept sensitive data.
- Carefully scrutinize email.
- Be as diligent as ever when completing wire transfers. Do not trust wire transfer numbers you receive through email.
- Take care not to disclose confidential information to third-party impostors.
What If You Get Sick?
Lawyers have an ethical duty to provide for the safeguarding of their clients’ interests in the event of incapacity. Advance planning is critical. While anyone can get sick at any time, health experts suggest that COVID-19 can cause especially severe illness that may last for several weeks, even in patients who do not require hospitalization.
- Now is a good time to review your preexisting contingency plans for illness, making sure they allow for longer periods of incapacity.
- Create (or update) a lawyer succession plan.
- Sole practitioners should review contingency procedures with their support staff. Those without any additional staff must make a plan to meet their ethical requirements in the event of illness.
- While it is not advisable to dwell on worst-case scenarios during these troubling times, it is nevertheless important that your planning account for death or disability, as well as for any concurrent disasters that might arise in your region alongside COVID-19.
Meeting the duty of competency means staying generally well informed, particularly regarding local and global affairs that could impact your client’s interests.
- Stay up to date on local and national news, public health advisories, global developments, and alerts from your employer.
- Stay alert for any operational updates or advisories from your local, state, or federal courts.
- Follow your local bar association and The Florida Bar on social media. We also encourage you to follow Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company on Facebook.
- The COVID-19 situation has already led some national and local governments around the world to issue curfews, quarantines, lockdowns, shutdowns, and travel restrictions with little or no notice. The same could happen in your communities. Even if you plan to go to work tomorrow, sudden developments in this fast-changing situation may make it difficult or impossible for you to do so. Please prepare accordingly.
Good Mental Health
Many malpractice claims are ultimately the result of mental health issues on the part of the attorney, including stress, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Those problems may be particularly difficult to manage during times of great distress.
While lawyers face many duties and demands, it is also important to maintain a sense of balance and to take care of yourself in mind, body, and spirit.
- Take time to relax and decompress.
- Once you are well informed, guard against excessive consumption of news or social media.
- When making food preparations, be sure to incorporate healthy items alongside shelf-stable or non-perishable items.
- Resist the urge to use alcohol or other substances as a coping mechanism.
- Make arrangements now for healthy forms of social interaction, even in the face of social distancing requirements and/or quarantine.
- Call your health care providers and ask for refills for any important medications. Request 60 or 90-day supplies when possible and advisable.
- Ask your therapist or mental health professional about remote counseling sessions by phone or videoconferencing.
- Arrange for easy contact with a legal mentor.
Get Legal Malpractice Insurance
If you aren’t already insured, make arrangements as soon as possible to protect yourself in the event of claims that might be made against you in the future.
Remember: even the best lawyers can face allegations of malpractice. We’re all human. Anyone can make a mistake, especially in the midst of tremendous disruption. That’s why high-quality protection is so important.
Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company (FLMIC) is Florida’s only direct-write provider of Lawyers’ Professional Liability (LPL) insurance. Our company was created for Florida Lawyers and by Florida Lawyers. We’re here for you.
- Review your current coverage. Make sure you understand it. Determine whether it still meets your needs.
- If you don’t have legal malpractice coverage, get it right away. Remember: LPL policies are claims made policies, meaning it isn’t too late to get coverage now.
- If you have questions, call our underwriters and talk to them directly.
- Visit flmic.com and submit an application.
What We’re Doing at FLMIC During COVID-19
In light of the evolving public health concerns, we want to reassure you that Florida Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company (FLMIC) remains fully operational. We are committed to serving our insured lawyers, as well as to protecting the health and safety of our staff and the surrounding communities. Out of abundance of caution, we have transitioned to a remote work environment. We are reducing any non-essential travel and working with our partners at voluntary bar associations throughout the state to reschedule sponsored events and CLE. Please be assured that our core business functions will remain operational throughout the course of this challenging time. We continue to be well equipped to meet your needs.
Our company has an “A” rating from A.M. Best, indicating financial strength with a stable outlook, a rating which we have held year after year since 2013. Additionally, we partner with reinsurance companies to provide additional stability and security for our insureds in the event that a claim is made.
Please stay tuned to our website, emails, and Facebook page for further pressing updates. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact our staff during regular business hours. For additional details and the latest updates, please monitor our Operations Update webpage.