On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was rolling my suitcase into the reception area at the public relations agency where I worked and looked in horror at the TV footage of the Twin Towers in New York City on fire. What resulted after that – a quick evacuation of our office building and commands for everyone to stay at home – ended up being a ground stop for all of us in both a literal and physical sense. Since that day, our lives forever changed. Who doesn’t remember taking the train those first few days after we returned to “normal”, reading newspapers covered with headshots of all of the missing people submitted by friends and family who they lost to the senseless acts of terrorism? We were all overcome with bewilderment, mourning and a numbness we could not shake. Life as we knew it, including carefree strolls into the airport right up to the gate to see off our loved ones, bringing half consumed water bottles onto airplanes, and touting carry-ons with more than 3.4 ounces of liquid, evaporated.
911 forced us into change. And now COVID-19 has hit us in similar ways. We have started to adapt – replacing Zoom chats with meetings and family gatherings, adding masks to our daily outfits, making sure we are standing 6 feet apart from each other, never leaving the house without hand sanitizer. As a family law attorney, I, like my colleagues, are facing the great unknowns in how we can practice law in this new world. Aside from the emotional loss of a “normal” daily schedule, we no longer know what to anticipate when we “go into court,” what the courts will be like when they eventually open their doors and how to advise our clients on what to expect.
That being said, we as divorce attorneys are already getting used to the “new way of doing things.” Gone are lengthy in-person court appearances where we sit idly for hours until our case is called, only to “step up” before the Judge to speak for only five minutes. We can no longer claim “unavailability” for hearings and depositions due to location; video conferencing has eliminated that argument. Efficiencies that have been so slow to come to one of the most crucial areas of law have risen.
Processes and procedures have changed and litigants will see this as cases move forward. Our lives have been shifted, not by choice but out of necessity. And the good news, from my perspective, is that our clients will benefit.
In Cook County, for example, when filing motions for relief “pre-COVID,” a litigant was given a date by the Clerk’s office to “present” the motion (often weeks after the motion was filed), only to have the attorney appear to give the other side “time to respond.” What often resulted were long delays in scheduling hearings, which inured to the benefit of the litigant contesting the motion. Now, when a litigant files a petition seeking “non-emergency” relief, the parties are held to an automatic briefing schedule, which greatly shortens the time to get to hearing if matters cannot be resolved by agreement. The result? Litigants and their attorneys are being held to predictable timelines to get matters moving and done.
The efficiencies are being extended “in court.” Attorneys now attend and complete status calls within minutes. What normally could amount to an hour wait in court can be condensed to 15 minutes via Zoom. Clients are saving money and attorneys are moving on to other matters more efficiently.
Trials are happening effortlessly via Zoom. I myself am scheduled for two separate trials in a span of two weeks, all happening from the comfort of my own office. Witnesses are being sworn in and questioned online. Court reporters are taking down testimony effortlessly.
Depositions have become streamlined. Attendees do not have to travel. Exhibits are being “screen shared.” Client consultations are as easy as setting up a video conference. Potential clients can gauge an attorney’s approach and experience and demeanor as if they are in the same room. There are no geographical boundaries on who we can consult with. Mediation is just as effective and even more so. Mediators shuttle between “rooms” virtually with parties attending from the comfort of their own homes. Clients’ need for child care is less crucial. And we all have become much more forgiving when seeing a child or pet scurry by.
While the unknowns remain, we as family law practitioners have adapted to meet our clients’ needs. Whether out of necessity or because we want to, we have embraced this force of change and will continue to do so. We have no other choice.
Kathryn Homburger Mickelson, Divorce and Family Law Partner