**This article was originally posted on the State Bar of Wisconsin Inside Track web page on April 8, 2020**
Family law has always been challenging, but now we get to practice it either from home, from work with a reduced staff or under other challenging conditions. This blog will touch on some of the ways to handle your office, communications with clients and with the Court during these times. These are just a few suggestions and not meant to be comprehensive. You may wish to look at Wisbar.org for some of the seminars, town hall meetings online and other useful information to weather this storm.
If you are in an office with more than one attorney, consider a unified approach. How are you responding to new client inquiries? How are you communicating your out of office status? Consider having a uniform message for voice mail, email and any other communications. Explain that it will likely take a bit longer to reply, but that you are still working since we are considered “essential” under Governor Evers’ Emergency Order No. 12.
Remind clients that you are in the office (perhaps a home office) and working. Consider posting a short message to your webpage about how you are handling work during this time. I have seen a number of them that are terrific. Ours is short, but communicates what is needed: We remain available to assist you with your legal needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are committed to providing current and new clients with exceptional legal services during this challenging time. Please be aware that to keep our clients and employees safe and to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we are making some changes to the way that we work with our clients. Click to Learn More (There is a longer explanation if you click on the link.)
Many of us have a court-centered practice or are used to meetings to handle matters collaboratively. Both are off limits right now, but we can find new ways to interact with clients. Ozaukee County has held video hearings using Zoom and may use YouTube in the future. Milwaukee is handling some contested matters by conference call. Many courts are delaying matters, but there is certainly concern with the backlog that will create in a number of months (we hope) when we return normal. It appears from the Supreme Court Order dated March 22, 2020, that the individual courts have a lot of flexibility:
Any party may request a hearing to determine the mode and schedule for any proceeding, which hearing shall be held telephonically or by video conferencing, but all non-essential hearings are to be postponed or conducted remotely.
However, it also seems that some courts do not understand the restrictions we ae working under. For example, Courts are requiring that litigants appear by phone with the attorney. Needless to say that is problematic if you are working from home. In addition, if a client needs to appear by phone or video, not all will have the technology to do so. We need to keep the courts informed of the restrictions that we are working under.3
Meetings could be held by video, including collaborative meetings. If you have not tried video conferencing, consider trying: Zoom.com, Google Hangouts, Whereby, Skype or other options to communicate with clients. Many of these are free or low cost. I purchased Zoom for my office and after the coupon I found online, it was about $134 for the year. Most phone systems we use in the office can be forwarded to your cell phone and you can do business as if you are in the office. Keep in mind the need for confidentiality and other best practices. https://www.wisbar.org/NewsPublications/Pages/General-Article.aspx?ArticleID=27574&source=carousel
Be aware of the constantly changing landscape. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has limited in person hearings and appearances through April 30. Milwaukee County and Waukesha are permitting some final hearings to occur by Affidavit, if all agree. Milwaukee Chief Judge Directive 20-06. March 23, 2020. Waukesha County Order Regarding Temporary Measures dated March 13, 2020. Each party would sign an Affidavit covering the areas that would normally be testified to at the hearing and the Court would approve the Marital Settlement Agreement, provided it and the Financial Disclosure Statements are all efiled. Check the Court websites where you practice for updated information on case management.
Depositions can also be handled remotely during this time pursuant to the Supreme Court Order dated March 25, 2020. This may lead to further complication depending on how many separate locations the parties and attorneys are at.
Rely on and stay connected to your friends and colleagues. It has been a great source of support to me to see how generous colleagues are with their help to manage the practice right now. I have learned about some of the above changes and options from my friends and colleagues who practice family law. It is refreshing to see the professionalism and collegiality in the family bar.