Personal injury and medical malpractice law is a unique profession and one, that in the past, was always recession proof. Auto accidents, trip and falls and medical malpractice happen whether there is a good economy or bad – in fact, typically as the economy gets worse, people get more distracted by their own problems and tend to get in more accidents.
Then came COVID 19 and the first punch was felt. People were sent home from work and told to stay in their homes. They stopped driving cars. Surgeons were told to only perform emergency surgeries – which meant our clients couldn’t get their injuries fixed AND doctors no longer had opportunities to make mistakes. Clients didn’t need attorneys for their new accidents, because there weren’t too many new accidents. If a prospective client did have an accident, they were too afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being exposed to the virus, so they iced their knee in the house and took aspirin.
Then the next punch came – the State and City closed the Courts. That meant conferences and motion practice stopped, trials stopped, and general discovery stopped. It was hoped the Courts would go virtual In New York, like other states, but they didn’t. In fact, not even e-filing of documents was permitted, except in rare circumstances.
So, the lawyers left their files in their offices and went to their homes to work. In many cases, they furloughed some or all of their staff. Once home, they prepared some documents for future filing, but their efforts were limited because the law is a responsive business and one can’t respond if documents aren’t being demanded. Firms were also hampered by a significant delay in getting medical records from medical personnel in crisis mode.
With limitations on paperwork, lawyers for both the plaintiffs and defendants turned to the phones. We called each other and attempted to settle some cases while we all had time on our hands to review and discuss, with few distractions. And for the briefest time, things felt normal and some cases settled, allowing the plaintiff’s lawyers to pay their bills. But the ecstasy was short lived. Soon, the small law firm with 300 cases and no new business, was down to 280 files, then 260, then 240 – a drop in business of 20% and continuing. At the current pace, by Fall, injury and accident practices could be down by 40% on their overall caseloads.
The next stage will be people returning to work, the reopening of Courts and a march toward normalcy. But that march will be much more like a crawl in the New York venues. The subways are filthy and dangerous, circa 1976. Staff will be afraid to use public transportation to get to work, for fear of being mugged or worse, getting sick. Then, the State Court system, which on a good day, is laden with congestion, will have to figure out how to manage the four month hiatus created by the pandemic and filter that into the already crowded docket. There won’t be enough clerks and law secretaries to conference cases and there won’t be enough judges to preside over trials. Without the threat of trial, insurance carriers will have less incentive to resolve their cases.
The dramatic difference in the economics of say, a restaurant v. a law firm, is that the restaurant is getting hurt now. We, the lawyers, will feel the effects of this crisis starting next year and continuing for a considerable time. We will have fewer cases and likely fewer staff and we will not have our “day in Court”, at least when we want it . . . and yet we will still have to pay rent, file expenses and advertising costs. When the rest of the New York businesses experience healing, we will be a sick industry looking for medicine that is no longer being offered.
My partners and I have had many meetings that began when this crisis was developing, and continued. We prepared and planned – not for this crisis specifically, but for a crisis in general. After all, New York has had to deal with 911 and the Enron blackout and we wanted to be “client accessible” and “work ready”.
We were lucky enough to have installed networking and phone systems at our entire staff’s homes, enabling us to do adopt the necessary technology and make a quick shift to “virtual lawyering”. As a result of our planning, we were fortunate enough during the last month to engage in virtual depositions, 50-H hearings and mediations. More important, by staying busy, we were also able to keep our entire staff, with the exception of the receptionist, who we furloughed but expect will rejoin the firm in June, when phone traffic once again picks up.
The pandemic has changed the world we live in, and we don’t yet know the full extent of those changes. There will be challenges to the legal community and the Court system moving forward. Many solo practitioners, older attorneys and unprepared law firms that didn’t have a plan, ended up leaving their clients feeling neglected and may never emerge from the pandemic. Well-capitalized firm like ours will continue to invest in our clients’ cases and likely use this opportunity to retain some quality talent that finds themselves out of work.
There is never a good time to be involved in an accident. But certainly this time is worse than all others. The partners of Sakkas, Cahn & Weiss have decades of experience in assisting our clients through difficult times and we are as committed to that mission now as we ever were.