Community editorial board: A lawyer’s reflections on COVID-19

Community editorial board: A lawyer’s reflections on COVID-19

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This column has been edited to amend grammar in the headline. 

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As a result of new justice system directives, it is back to the office and the courthouse for this lawyer. I had a baby in 2019, so I didn’t work full-time in the months leading up to March 2020. For the past two years I have enjoyed, or endured — depending on how you look at it — practicing law from home.

This was no easy feat for most justice system participants. In a short period of time, we all jumped on the technology learning curve, calling evidence, examining witnesses, and making submissions using video conference technology. We made it work, some days better than others. I muddled through home schooling my kids, and trying to manage working from home. My staff and associates at the firm also navigated this transition, and somehow we plodded through the pandemic, thankfully making it through to the other side of it.

As I look back on the past two years, I know there are things I will miss, things I am happy to leave in the past, and things I am looking forward to upon my return.

One of the things I will miss is the short commute. My work from home commute was a shuffle from my bed to my desk, about 20 feet. From my desk, I was able to attend courthouses across Ontario. I could start my morning in Cornwall, then go to Toronto, North York, with a stop in Brockville. Then I could shuffle off to my kitchen for lunch. There was no need to stop at my office, our files are now digitized, and we are all able to work remotely. Afternoons could be spent with clients all over Eastern Ontario, and then attending board meetings with members from all over the province.

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Next, no hard pants. A famous saying from Tik Tok: “No Hard Pants!” That is, no pants with a severe button and fly. Gone were my lawyer robes, pantyhose, serious business suits. It was pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt. A black blazer hung loosely off the side of my desk at home and a tube of red lipstick in my drawer for virtual court appearances, the quick change happening without having to stand up. High heels? Never. Slippers, fuzzy socks, and bare feet.

The best part of working from home was being home for my kids when they rolled in the door at 3:30 p.m., like two tumbleweeds. I would sit at my desk and watch them get off the bus from my front window. For the first minute of their walk, they moved slowly, sharing tidbits of their day with one another. By the end of their walk, they were bickering. I would stand at the kitchen counter with them, letting them regale me with stories from their school day. Having this time with my kids was a gift and I will miss this the most.

When reflecting on what I will not miss, I think of how the justice system was not immune from technical glitches. We coped with witnesses frozen on screen, and audio systems that experienced feedback. At times it was great, things moving smoothly and swiftly. But when there was trouble, it was frustrating for everyone. We did our best, and hats off to the court staff and leadership who persevered.

Despite my best efforts, it was impossible to separate work life from home life during this time. When I was at the office, I could leave my work on my office desk, drive away, and leave the work there. Working from home created a situation where the work was always there. A home office 20 feet from your bed is not ideal — it’s hard to shut your brain off when the work is just there, in your face. Defined work hours turned into undefined COVID-time.

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I also missed my clients. I did my best to serve them via Zoom but it just wasn’t the same. When you are involved in a court case, you think about your case a lot. It can be overwhelming. The human connection with your lawyer is important, and it was just as important to me. At times, it felt difficult to connect successfully with clients over the computer, but we made things work in all of the circumstances.

Things I look forward to include a simple coffee break with my colleagues. A quick coffee in the law library or at a coffee shop was part of the normal course of a day between colleagues in the justice system. I look forward to these meetings again, hearing about my colleagues’ days, and their experiences in court. We did our best to stay in touch, with video calls and text messages, but there was always something missing.

I look forward to nuances that get lost in translation with technology. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance, a half-smile — you don’t see these nuances in body language in bail hearing conducted over the phone. Sarcasm and dry humour was risky over Zoom and telephone court. Smiling with our eyes and or greeting someone with a nod, this was lost. This is a chill set over professional relationships that will take time to restore, perhaps over coffee.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my clients, is just be present for them. Sitting with clients as they ugly cry, or being by their side as they receive life changing news — being physically present for someone has more value than we give it credit for. There is no legal training that teaches a lawyer this skill. Lawyers love to argue and talk. But there is often more value in the unsaid than in any arguments we can try and put out there.

Whether or not the pandemic is over is for the health experts to determine. For now, I am back to court, back to high heels, back to being present for my clients. There will be days that I will cut out early, and wait in my kitchen for the kids to tumble in at 3:30, just for old times sake.

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