State, county, city and town courts have gone online, installing videoconferencing as a move to keep the wheels of justice turning while the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined most face-to-face legal activity.
Announced Monday by Seventh Judicial District Administrative Judge Craig Doran, the move affects state, county, city and town courts in Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne and Yates counties. It comes as a welcome advance.
“Judge Doran is doing the right thing,” says Edward Hourihan Jr., managing partner of Bond, Schoeneck & King’s Rochester office.
Similarly appreciative is Paul Nunes, a partner in Heisman, Nunes & Hull LLP, who praised not only Doran but all local court officers as rising well to the occasion during the pandemic.
The state court system’s videoconferencing kickoff comes just shy of two weeks after Doran put rules into effect sharply curtailing court operations.
Frank Geraci, chief judge of the Western District of New York, had already announced similar moves to rein in area federal court proceedings.
In both the federal and state systems, proceedings are limited to those the court deems essential. That means a virtual moratorium on new civil matters, a pause of indefinite length in jury trials and a rollback of in-person oral arguments.
To hold online proceedings in the state system, each county’s courthouse where courts have been consolidated has assembled a core team of court officials, and security and tech workers sufficient to process orders, keep court records, answer telephones and run video conferencing equipment.
For area attorneys, the pandemic has meant significant changes but not a complete halt of business.
Not much new work is coming in, says Hourihan, but much of his firm’s ongoing business continues. Depositions, client conferences and parlays with opposing counsel are still happening, but through apps like Zoom rather than in person.
Still, he concedes, “things have very much slowed down.” For clients facing their own slowdowns, “legal concerns right now are not at the top of their list.”
Hourihan predicts large and midsize firms like his will ride out the pandemic if not with ease at least with relative assurance of staying in business.
“We’re hoping to bounce back in the second half of the year,” he says.
Nunes’ three-lawyer firm is tiny compared to Bond, Schoeneck. But while it also is not seeing a lot of new business, he is confident of its survival. Heisman, Nunes & Hull’s client base is similar to Bond, Schoeneck’s. And many of the smaller firm’s clients have long been associated with its partners.
While many might not be immediately rushing to hire an attorney today, the pandemic will raise legal questions that will need answering as conditions improve and the economy picks up, Nunes says. He and his partners plan to be ready.
The three partners started the firm 11 months ago after spending more than two decades as partners of Underberg & Kessler LLP, a 29-attorney Rochester-based firm with a client base also not unlike Bond, Schoeneck’s.
When he and his two partners broke away from Underberg & Kessler, Nunes says, they determined to do things differently, abjuring much of the pomp associated with the practice of white-shoe law.
“No client has ever asked me whether I have a great view from my office, how the sunset looks from the office window or wanted to know how big my conference room is,” he says. “Do you really need a fancy office and a carved desk?”
Instead of going for the fancy accouterments, the newly minted Heisman, Nunes & Hull partner concentrated on laying a solid, tech-savvy foundation for doing business virtually. As a result, says Nunes, they are very well prepared to function optimally in the current environment.
The firm has a modest office in the Cascade District and has a large conference room available when one is needed, but it’s a shared space that adds little to the firm’s modest overhead. Like Hourihan, Nunes sees difficulties on the horizon but does not believe they will be insurmountable.
Less sanguine is Kevin Morabito, East Rochester sole practitioner and self-described “typical small-town lawyer.
Morabito’s client base is a changing cast of mostly one-off clients, people needing to get a speeding ticket or a DWI talked down to a lesser charge, an assault pled down, a will written or a home sale closed. His recurring clients tend to be small-time landlords looking to evict problem or non-paying tenants.
“None of that is happening right now. Nobody’s getting tickets or DWIs. You can’t go into a nursing home to write a will. Nobody’s being evicted and nobody’s doing closings,” Morabito says.
Some money is coming in from clients on payment plans for already completed work. But how far will that go and how long will it last? Morabito has a mortgaged home in Pittsford and kids in college. If the pandemic indeed abates by the year’s second half, it seems like a distant and unknown point.
If he needs it, Morabito wonders, might he qualify for financial support as a small business from the just passed bailout package?
Even if he does qualify, he frets, “I have no idea where I’d go to get it.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. All Rochester Beacon coronavirus articles are collected here.