Over the last decade, technology has advanced at an increasingly rapid pace, affecting how industries around the world do business. As a result of the on-going pandemic, fields that typically rely on face-to-face interaction, like the legal system, are having to adopt new practices and procedures that may impact how the industry functions permanently.
Under ordinary circumstances, Tunde Ojo from the Kent, UK says in-person interaction is generally used for attorney-client meetings to discuss pending legal cases. However, medical researchers have discovered that the virus can spread via respiratory droplets generated by a cough or sneeze, through close and prolonged personal contact, or by touching a virus-ridden object and then touching your nose, eyes, or mouth. Consequently, only essential businesses are permitted to stay open, while other businesses close their doors to limit the spread of the virus.
According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in the U.K., the government has acknowledged several key workers that are ‘essential to the running of the justice system.’ Essential workers include advocates that are required to appear before a court or tribunal, legal practitioners that are working on imminent tribunal hearings such as barristers and legal executives, solicitors acting in the execution of wills, and attorneys that advise people living in institutions or deprived of their liberty. However, essential workers around the world are being advised to work remotely whenever possible. Thus, Tunde Ojo, a well-respected law professional in the U.K., offers his advice on how to best communicate with clients during these unprecedented times.
Why Interviews are Important
According to Ojo, the Crown Prosecution Service and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have issued a temporary interview protocol that aims to avoid unnecessary in-person interviews. Interviews are important for many reasons, and the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act of 1996 states that investigators are required to pursue all reasonable lines of enquiry that may further exonerate or implicate a suspect. In most cases, a line of enquiry necessitates an interview. Without the interview process, suspects are deprived of the opportunity to provide their full account of the situation and are unable to state their defense. Meanwhile, investigators would be forced to rely solely on other evidence and lose the ability to draw adverse inferences from a suspect’s silence. Thus, interviews are vital to the justice system, whether they are completed face-to-face or using technology.
Phone Calls and Text Messaging
Plenty of attorney-client communications already occur over the phone. Two of the most common reasons for phone communication are to check the status of a pending case or answer client inquiries. In general, clients expect lawyers to return their calls promptly. If an attorney does not respond to a client in one business day, he or she should provide an acceptable reason as to why they were unable to reply. It is particularly important to respond quickly during a global pandemic, as individuals are facing additional stress, so they need to know they have your support. Also, texting can be a fast and effective method to schedule a video chat or meeting with clients. However, Tunde Ojo says to never use text as a means of giving legal advice or updating a client on an on-going case.
Video conferencing is becoming progressively popular in the legal field, particularly for attorneys that serve clients in various locations. Most video conferencing tools can be used with any device that is equipped with a camera and access to the Internet, including smartphones and laptops. Not to mention, video conferencing is exceptionally useful for meetings that involve more than two participants and when screen sharing is helpful. It is important to note that not all conversations are ideal for video calls, for instance, routine check-ins, question and answer sessions, and case updates that do not involve strategic exchange are best suited for these circumstances.
When using video conferencing for the provision of legal advice or services, Tunde Ojo suggests that lawyers and paralegals follow his tips. Firstly, lawyers must get consent from the client to proceed with video conferencing. Secondly, all individuals in remote locations should introduce themselves to ensure that the privilege and confidentiality of the case are not compromised. Furthermore, attorneys must confirm that no unidentified parties are present to improperly influence the client. Moreover, if documentation is required to verify one’s identity, lawyers should demand a copy of their ID is produced prior to the online meeting. Finally, it is important to maintain detailed records of all meetings, in-person or online, including the date, start and end time, mode of communication, and a list of the individuals present.
Email and File-sharing
Email is perfect for short messages, such as following up with clients. Ojo says that double-checking the recipient of your email before pressing send is critical in this line of work. Sending an email to the wrong client is damaging to your reputation and can betray attorney-client privilege. As a result, Ojo suggests hand-delivering sensitive information only if necessary, or placing it in a secure client portal amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. File-sharing platforms allow individuals to distribute and assign access to various forms of digital media, including audio, images, and video, with your chosen network. The availability of these applications (such as Dropbox and Google Drive), individuals can avoid physically handing off documents to their attorney and help reduce the spread of coronavirus.
In some instances, face-to-face communication may be unavoidable, says Ojo. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), businesses that remain open must practice social distancing. If an attorney needs to meet a client in-person, they should skip shaking hands and maintain six-feet of distance. The CDC also recommends minimizing the spread of coronavirus by disinfecting surfaces within the workplace that are touched frequently, such as doorknobs, railings, and countertops. Moreover, offering clients and employees alcohol-based hand sanitizers or protective masks as soon as they enter the premises can be highly beneficial. Finally, the CDC also advises meeting outdoors or in open areas that are well ventilated to further minimize the risks of spreading the virus.
Several jails and detention centers have modified their operating procedures in response to COVID-19. Most institutions have suspended all “contact visits” and replaced them with safer means of communication. For instance, most facilities are equipped for video calls, so lawyers can connect with detainees without physically having to visit them onsite. Moreover, some facilities are allowing attorney-client visits that take place in booths where the attorney and client are separated by a glass barrier and communicate via the phone system.
Most industries have had to alter their typical practices of doing business, and the legal profession has been no exception. As medical experts and the public at large work hard to defeat COVID-19, several industries continue to invest in technologies that allow for remote access and greater convenience. Meanwhile, courts are considering whether video conferencing will be used as a permanent tool to keep up with a demanding number of cases. Therefore, Ojo predicts that COVID-19 may have a long-lasting impact on the legal system moving forward.