Essential Designation Allows Attorneys to Keep Serving Clients During COVID-19 Closures

Originally published by WorkCompCentral and authored by Mark Powell.

When Oklahoma claimants’ attorney Bob Burke woke up Wednesday, he wasn’t sure whether the state’s law firms were considered essential businesses under Gov. Kevin Stitt’s emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Wednesday afternoon, Burke got his answer, and his wish.

One day after announcing his “Safer-at-Home” order — which instructed all non-essential businesses to close — Stitt amended the declaration by allowing legal services and myriad other professions to continue operating.

“The governor was gracious in recognizing that, hey, this is uncharted territory,” Burke said. “Everybody is flying by the seat of their pants these days. It’s difficult for anyone, even a governor, to know what to do or what to say sometimes.”

Workers’ compensation attorneys across the country have been finding out just how essential they are, as state governors have issued emergency orders intended to cut down on crowded spaces and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were more than 53,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new coronavirus — in the U.S., and 706 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 18,000 people worldwide have reportedly died from the virus.

In California, law firms and their employees are considered essential under the state’s list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers.” The list, published after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered nonessential workers to stay home, includes "professional services, such as legal or accounting services, when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities and critical sector services."

Law firms have also been deemed essential legal services in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Illinois. 

In New York, however, legal processes have slowed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a broad declaration that did not specifically include law firms as essential businesses, according to the New York Law Journal.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said law firms can stay open, but they must accommodate employees who need to conduct business from home.

Employees at some law firms have already started working from home, even if they aren’t legally required to. Firms are trying to strike a balance between serving clients and ensuring the health and safety of employees, said R. Mack Babcock, a Denver-based workers' compensation and personal injury attorney.

“I’m an attorney, yes, but I’m also a business owner,” Babcock said. “Fortunately for me, we were already set up to be pretty remote. Certainly, the attorneys and managerial staff were already working remotely. So, that transition for my employees was pretty easy. We had decided to go 100% remote anyway. We issued instructions that we’re doing everything over the phone.”

Babcock said his firm has also started using a teleconference program known as Zoom, which allows his staff to conduct meetings as if they were face-to-face.

“These cases don’t stop,” he said. “My clients' conditions are not put on pause. My clients’ ability to work is not put on pause.”

Alan Gurvey, a Southern California-based applicants’ attorney, said it was important for law firms to stay open because many clients could get lost in the legal shuffle without help.

“Clearly our services are needed to assist those who have filed claims and cannot necessarily get medical services or compensation without our services,” Gurvey said, “especially if we are the only person that the defendant will speak to, given the applicant’s legal representation.”

Gurvey said keeping law firms open also allows applicants and defendants to plan for eventual settlements.

“Compensation issues have also been at the forefront of discussions we are having with defense representatives,” Gurvey said. “We are also finding many defendants engaging in overall case settlement discussions to secure the well-being of our clients, as well as of our firm. Defendants need their law firms up and running, as do applicants need theirs, so settling cases now instead of pursuing protracted litigation is always a worthwhile use of time.” 

He added, “And that is what a lot of lawyers have now without a full schedule of trials, conferences and depositions. These settlements are valuable to defendants and applicants in these financially strapped times.”