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Law Practice,
Alternative Dispute Resolution

May 29, 2020

Thinking outside the mask: law and the pandemic

Desperate times call for clever solutions. I’ve been rounding up stories about the many innovative ways in which lawyers and mediators have been dealing with the challenges of the pandemic and discovering the surprising number of people who find the changes in their lives, while disruptive, to be positive.

Mann robert web

Robert S. Mann

Neutral, ADR Services, Inc.

Email: rmann@adrservices.com

Robert mediates and arbitrates business, real estate and construction disputes.

Desperate times call for clever solutions. I've been rounding up stories about the many innovative ways in which lawyers and mediators have been dealing with the challenges of the pandemic and discovering the surprising number of people who find the changes in their lives, while disruptive, to be positive.

Let me start with my favorite -- the way in which my estate planning friend Amy Jacobs has become "The Parking Lot Lawyer." Amy has long enjoyed a successful practice as an estate planner -- a practice that often requires clients to sign documents in the presence of a notary and witnesses. But clients can no longer show up at the office to sign. What to do? Here's Amy's solution. There's an upscale small shopping center near Amy's home office. Amy makes an appointment to meet the client in the parking lot (free parking is just an added bonus). Amy sets up a card table with a chair, puts the documents on the table (along with hand sanitizer, naturally), has the notary there, along with witnesses if necessary. The client shows up, signs the documents, the notary notarizes the documents, the witness witnesses the documents and in a few minutes, the whole job is completed. Amy reports that the clients love it and some have suggested that she rent space in the parking lot from now on.

Another lawyer colleague has a beautiful home. He has a "great room" with a gym, sauna and a gorgeous exposed beam ceiling. The great room has now become the office. When he joins me on Zoom mediations, the exposed beam ceiling is in the background. It looks stunning (and, dare I say it, better than the "palm trees waving in the breeze" Zoom background). When he needs a break, the home gym is steps away. We haven't yet seen him sauntering out of the sauna to join our Zoom conferences but I think it's just a matter of time.

An insurance defense lawyer who recently participated in a successful Zoom mediation reports that she's been working from home for years. She has an elaborate home office -- when seen as a background in a Zoom conference, it looks like any office that you would see in a commercial office building. She reports that she "dresses up" every day because it helps her to focus and maintain a "professional demeanor." She has embraced the Zoom platform as an effective way to handle conferences and she likes the ability to see, as well as hear, her clients.

Under the heading of "positives" from the new normal, a plaintiff lawyer friend tells me that he's never been happier in 35 years of practice. He has a home office that works well, but he says that the break from having to run around to court constantly is tremendously enjoyable. He sees a difference in client expectations -- clients are more relaxed and tolerant -- he reports that they don't expect instantaneous responses and don't get upset if he can't get back to them immediately (for those of you who are too young to have experienced the days before there were fax machines, let alone emails, the pace of practicing law was far different and expectations were much different).

A friend who is the general counsel of a company here in California tells me that he and his wife cope with the isolation from friends and family by having Zoom dinner parties. They "make reservations" for a date and time, and "share" the dinner with their friends. He says that it's the next best thing to being there and there are less dishes to do after dinner. A "party of four" seems to work best.

Although not strictly "legal," I have a close friend who runs one of the largest concert logistics companies in the United States -- they build stages, supply lighting, and move equipment. When the virus decimated the concert world, she thought: "What can we do?" And then she realized: "We build things -- we can build things that people need right now." So, her company is building things, plastic face shields, plastic shields for use in offices, nursing homes, restaurants, grocery stores, hardware stores.

Zoom mediations are becoming the norm, but there are some outside the mask approaches. ADR Services, Inc., the provider where I mediate and arbitrate cases, has trained an entire cadre of people to help the neutrals, the parties and the lawyers use the platform easily and efficiently. They are on-call during the mediation and can jump in to solve any technical question, like: "How do I show everyone this PowerPoint?" Unfortunately, they can't solve every problem, like: "Why do I look so old on camera?" Or, perhaps that's just my worry.

A truly thoughtful and far-reaching approach to Zoom is that of my old friends Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld. Katherine and Alan, who run ACT of Communication, have been training lawyers and other professionals in acting and communication techniques for four decades. They are now bringing their skills to Zoom. They have introduced a program called "First Thing We Do, Let's SKILL All The Lawyers." It's a free program to learn specific Zoom skills in three minutes or less. The program includes titles like: "What's Behind You?" "How Are You Sitting?" "Where Are You Looking?" "Lag Time or Mind The Gap!" These tutorials are specifically designed for lawyers using Zoom. In the segment "How Are You Sitting," they suggest "moving your chair into a "close up" of head, shoulders and upper arms while looking straight into the camera lens when you want to command focus. When you want to release focus, move your chair back a few inches and look to the center of the screen rather than the camera." Did you know, by the way, that when you look at someone on your screen, to that person you appear to be looking down and not at them -- to look at someone you have to look directly at the camera lens which can take a little time to get used to. Katherine and Alan have a suggestion for that as well. "Where Are You Looking" helps lawyers do what actors do -- put someone in that camera lens to whom you are talking.

As for me, I too have become a Zoom Zen Master, conducting mediations and settling cases from the comfort of my home office, aka, our guest room. It has certain advantages, principal among them that it looks out through sliding glass doors onto a beautiful garden, filled with flowers and citrus trees. I watch hummingbirds fight over their territory and our two 25 pound (each) Maine Coon Cats keep me company, ever alert for the occasional lizard sighting outside the glass doors. They used to ignore me -- suddenly we are best friends.

While we might all be separated for now, people are nicer -- every email starts and ends with some variation of "hope you are doing okay" and "be careful and stay safe." I hear from many friends and colleagues that their value systems have changed. What used to be important seems unimportant and what we sometimes take for granted, our friends, our health, our good fortune, has moved into the center of our focus. I hope that as we return to a normal life, we take some of these thoughts with us and continue to think outside the mask in our personal and professional lives.

While not laughing at the antics of his new-found cat companions, Robert Mann mediates and arbitrates business, real estate and construction cases at ADR Services, Inc. He can be reached at rmann@adrservices.com. 

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Ben Armistead

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