The challenges of providing
legal services during a global pandemic
by Alona C. Mercado
It’s September and students are heading back to school. The excitement that normally accompanies the crisp fall air this time of year is now mixed with worry, anxiety and for some, dread – because it’s not any “normal” September. It’s also 2020.
It’s funny how the mere mention of 2020 now conjures up so many different feelings. At the beginning of the year, 2020 was going to be a milestone year for my firm. We will be celebrating our fifth anniversary on November 30, 2020 and we had many plans for how we would celebrate that with our clients, friends and family. We also had a lot of plans on how we wanted to expand our firm. Unfortunately, 2020 had other plans for us, indeed, for the whole world.
The world has changed in many ways since that fateful day in March when COVID-19 was officially declared a worldwide pandemic. It set forth a tsunami of challenges that we either had to embrace or get caught in the waves and suffer the consequences. Millions around the world stopped doing what they normally did on a daily basis and stayed home. Many feared for their lives, their livelihood and their way of life. But people are resilient. They did what had to be done in order to survive. What survival looked like, in practical terms, depended on your job.
Around the world, millions of people lost their jobs because of COVID. Millions were fortunate to keep their jobs but were sent home to work remotely. Millions more were declared essential workers by various levels of governments and had to continue to work under new and sometimes dangerous circumstances.
The Province of Manitoba declared lawyers to be essential workers and therefore could continue to operate. In what capacity was left to us. Within one week of the pandemic declaration, we made the difficult decision to physically close our office downtown and have our staff work remotely from their homes. Over the next several months, we gradually went back to working fully from our office as the Province declared each new phase for re-opening. To be honest, ninerbyos ako during this time because the phones were so quiet. Not a lot of people were calling or e-mailing. And for those clients who already had meetings scheduled prior to the pandemic, we re-scheduled them if possible or had telephone or Zoom meetings instead. For those that we had to meet in person, we took as many precautions as possible.
If it were up to us, we would have conducted all our meetings by Zoom to ensure everyone’s safety. However, certain rules meant we could not do this – for example, where banks were allowing their clients to provide electronic signatures on documents. To this day, electronic signatures are still not allowed on legal documents. In time, the Law Society of Manitoba and the Provincial government implemented rules that would allow lawyers to witness real estate documents, Wills and Powers of Attorneys using video conferencing. However, the procedures put in place were strict and could pose more challenges for our clients. Lawyers had to either e-mail or courier the documents to the clients for their signatures and then witness the signing of each document using Zoom or some other video conferencing method. The original signed documents would then need to be sent to the lawyer’s office to be signed by the lawyer. The lawyer then had to attach a statement attesting to the witnessing process.
It’s a cumbersome process that means the clients need to have e-mails and good quality printers or they would need to incur additional courier costs so that the documents could be sent to their homes and back to the lawyer’s office. It’s not as simple as attaching an electronic signature.
For those clients who decide they want to meet at our office, we encourage them to wear a facemask and provide us with all requested documents by e-mail prior to the meeting. When they arrive, we ask them to knock on the door because our doors are locked, and we are only meeting with clients who have scheduled appointments. We also want to ensure the safety of our clients by minimizing their contact to any doorknobs in our office. Upon arrival, we ask them to use the hand sanitizer and then we give them a pen to sign any documents. (Incidentally, since these pens must to be taken home, we’ve spent a fortune buying lots of pens.) And after each meeting, the chairs and desks are sanitized.
For businesses of all sizes, staying open during the pandemic meant that we had to scramble to get hand sanitizers, masks and disinfectant wipes. I can tell you that they were hard to find in the early days. And those that were available were quite expensive. But they are now an essential part of doing business and must be purchased to ensure everyone’s safety.
These last six months have certainly been challenging. It remains to be seen how much longer this pandemic will dictate our lives. It will also be interesting to see how much of these safety procedures we are now using will carry forward in a post-pandemic world. At my office, there are six of us and we try our best to social distance whenever possible. Masks come on when clients are scheduled to arrive, the office always smells like disinfectant and our hands are dry from over washing. But the phones are ringing again, the inquiries are starting to come in and the office is beginning to adapt to our “new normal.”
The contents of this article are not intended as legal advice and are for information purposes only. Should you require legal advice on a specific issue relating to the contents of this article, please seek the services of a legal professional.
Atty Alona C. Mercado is a partner with the law firm of MERCADO TRINH LAW LLP. She was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1999. Her preferred areas of practice include wills and estates, real estate, business law and immigration law. Alona can be reached at (204) 594-3436 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.mercadotrinhlaw.com
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