Drive-through banks, pharmacies and coffee shops, move over. There’s a new type of drive-through business: Legal services.
The Comiter, Singer, Baseman & Braun law firm created a sign-and-drive plan that lets clients sign legal documents without ever stepping out of their cars. The idea was created so clients could avoid going inside the firm’s Palm Beach Gardens office and risk exposure to the airborne coronavirus.
Here’s how it works. Founding partner Michael Singer said clients are told to come to the office building with their own masks, gloves and pens. They are then directed to pull up to the building’s covered exterior, where masked and gloved witnesses and attorneys are waiting to help them execute the documents.
Since Comiter, Singer created drive-through document signing, the response from clients “has been overwhelming,” Singer said. “It’s been very well-received.”
Most lawyers probably never thought they would serve clients standing outside or talking to them through a video conference, but here we are, six months after the coronavirus pandemic began, and people still are adjusting.
And just as restaurants have had to change the way they do business by offering curbside food pickup, attorneys have had to change the way they do business as well.
Some lawyers now use technology to virtually greet new clients, conduct conferences and depositions, or even attend court hearings. Because courts have encouraged technology, including e-filing, during the past few years, some lawyers say they can work more efficiently via Zoom and other applications that allow them to do business without leaving their office or house.
The legal profession isn’t just changing the way it does business, however. The pandemic also has affected lawyers’ businesses, with some noting a growing or dipping case load. Several lawyers expect 2021 to bring a flood of new cases as the pandemic’s effects on the economy become more pronounced over time.
Personal injury lawyers, for instance, saw business decline during the lockdown because fewer people were driving. Consequently, there were fewer injuries from car collisions, West Palm Beach lawyer Brian Guralnick said. Other types of injuries, such as slips and falls, also dropped off because consumers stayed home and avoided most in-person shopping.
Now that the economy is opening up, however, “we’re seeing more (personal injury) cases come back,” Guralnick said.
Since the pandemic began and people lost jobs due to business closures or cutbacks, Guralnick said conditions have changed for economic recovery due to injury. With the pandemic causing massive job losses, “many people are not paying their car insurance,” he said. Consequently, Gurlanick said drivers should consider adding uninsured motorist coverage to their own policies, which protects them if they are in a car accident and the other driver has no insurance.
Litigators say the pandemic proved that technology, such as Zoom video conferencing, still can allow them to represent their clients, plus save clients money by not having to drive to the courthouse or fly to another state for meetings, hearings or depositions.
Even after the pandemic wanes, technology likely will continue to remain in use for legal services because it saves clients’ money and is much more efficient, said Gregory Coleman, a former Florida Bar president and partner in the West Palm Beach law firm of Critton Luttier & Coleman.
The big hitch in the legal world will be when jury trials, suspended since March, resume. It’s not clear when trials will resume, Coleman said, but it is obvious there is a huge backlog that will make obtaining a future jury trial date difficult.
Another unknown: How lawyers will even conduct jury trials if everyone is wearing a mask to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
Jury selection, witness testimony and other aspects of trials all will be harder to conduct because a key part of determining credibility is watching people for non-verbal cues. “You analyze a person’s facial expressions,” Coleman said. “It’s a huge component.”
On the matrimonial front, divorce lawyers say business is steady and expected to increase during the coming months. West Palm Beach lawyer Jeffrey Fisher said clients have called with interest in splitting from their spouses, after having spent more time with them during the past six months than they typically do.
People in troubled marriages used to be able to count on being away from their spouses most hours of the day for work or to take care of the children, limiting interaction with the spouse to a couple of hours each day, said Fisher, of Fisher Potter Hodas.
“But when you’re quarantined with someone 24 hours a day, what was once a tolerable situation becomes intolerable,” Fisher said. “I’ve seen a lot of people come to the realization the marriage is over, but although they can’t stay married to this person, they can’t practically end the marriage.”
Fisher said some people are waiting to file for divorce because the pandemic has made moving out, schooling the children and other basic aspects of life difficult to accomplish.
Therefore, while his firm has seen a higher number of consultations by people convinced they can’t stay married, “they also are convinced they can’t pull the trigger yet because there’s no place to go. So the high number of calls is not translating into a high number of case filings right now.”
Fisher does expect more divorce filings to take place next year, if the pandemic wanes and a vaccine is available.Of course, for the very wealthy, staying apart from a spouse is not really a problem if they have more than one house, Fisher said.
Joel Weissman, a West Palm Beach attorney, agreed.
Weissman said his wealthy clients who have multiple houses are choosing not to remain in the same house with their spouse. “Instead, they are isolating elsewhere, and happiness is setting in,” Weissman said.
Consequently, Weissman said business is steady but isn’t affected much by the pandemic.
Bankruptcy lawyers mostly say they aren’t slammed yet with business from the economic downturn, but they expect it will take place next year if the economy continues to lag and creditors start ramping up lawsuits against borrowers.
Philip Landau, partner in the Boca Raton law firm of Shraiberg, Landau & Page, said he’s already seen a pickup in business during the past six weeks. Landau also expects additional cases involving corporate workouts, a financial rescue outside of bankruptcy.
To prepare for the expected rise in bankruptcy filings, Landau said his eight-lawyer firm just hired another attorney, and may hire more. “We’re anticipating we’re going to need more people,” Landau said.
Estate planning lawyer Robert Wolf said his practice already is busier than ever.
“Business has picked up because a lot of clients want to get their estate planning in order. They’re scared of passing away without having everything wrapped up,” said Wolf, of Mann & Wolf law firm.
Wolf said clients also want to ensure they have up-to-date documents on living wills and health care surrogates in the event they become ill.
To ease clients’ concerns about being in an enclosed office, Wolf, like Singer, relies on the outdoors, too.
Wolf’s office garage is open, breezy and boasts views of the Intracoastal Waterway across the street. For document signings, Wolf said he sets up a bridge table in the garage, plus a few chairs. People stand or sit at a distance, then take turns approaching the table to sign, Wolf said.
“People are pleased as punch to be doing it outside,” Wolf said. “And it’s my preference to do it outside, too.”
Wolf said he’s even gone the extra mile to help clients staying in nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, as long as their rooms are on the ground floor. Because outsiders aren’t allowed inside skilled nursing facilities, a nurse will bring documents to the client, then Wolf and witnesses will watch from outside the window as documents are signed.
Everyone is on a cell phone talking to each other during the process “so you don’t have to shout through the window,” Wolf said. “The process works.”