Public Health

Law firms are considered essential businesses in some states amid the coronavirus

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Some states, including Illinois and Indiana, have labeled lawyers essential workers who can still go into their offices amid stay-at-home orders aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

These orders have come as lawyers have reported a high demand for their assistance from clients seeking to address the many challenges and novel legal questions presented by the pandemic.

In Illinois, law firm leaders say they welcomed Gov. J.B. Pritzker listing “legal services” under essential businesses that are permitted to be open while the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order remains in effect through April 7.

“What makes us essential is this virus has lots of legal issues associated with it,” says Patricia Brown Holmes, managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila. “Clients need help.”

Holmes says most employees in her firm’s Chicago office are working remotely, but some attorneys preparing for trial in May have chosen to go in so they can be in a “war room full of documents and binders.”

“It is easier for handling documents and handling big binders if you are in the office,” she says.

Holmes says she has also gone to the office “a couple times a week to check on everything as the managing partner.”

Linda M. Doyle, partner and general counsel at McDermott Will & Emery, says almost all employees in the firm’s Chicago office are working remotely as well. However, Doyle says some staff have traveled to the office to check the mail for items to scan and send to attorneys or other employees.

Additionally, some McDermott lawyers working on “document-intense” trusts and estates matters needed to go into the office early on after the shift to working remotely, she says.

Rick Reibman, managing partner of Thompson Coburn’s Chicago office, says firmwide employees have been told to work remotely unless a specific need requires them to go into the office.

The Illinois governor’s order makes it possible for firm employees in the state who are approved by supervisors to go into the firm’s physical locations to do so, he says.

“There are the exceptions that come up, and we are equipped to accommodate them if we have to,” Reibman says.

Other states that have exempted lawyer and legal professionals from stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders include Indiana and California.

On the other hand, Michigan is one state where lawyers and most law firm employees have been directed not to enter their offices. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not include lawyers as “critical infrastructure workers” who are “necessary to sustain or protect life” in a recent executive order.

Workers not listed in the critical infrastructure category, but who are needed “to conduct minimum basic operations” at a business, are permitted to be on site “to maintain the value of inventory and equipment, care for animals, ensure security, process transactions (including payroll and employee benefits), or facilitate the ability of other workers to work remotely.”

Meanwhile, straddling a middle ground is Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Wolf’s business closure order did not include legal services as “life-sustaining businesses,” but the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts later clarified that law firms could provide access to their offices so attorneys and staff could carry out activities courts in the state have said are essential.

ABA President Judy Perry Martinez recently wrote to the director of the federal government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency requesting that if the agency recommends a national stay-at-home order, legal services be included as essential services.

“The American people and U.S. business community must have access to the legal services they need—when they need them most, in this time of crisis,” she wrote.

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