ABA Opinion on Virtual Offices: Is It Time for the ABA to Step Aside?

Yesterday, the ABA released Opinion 498 on Virtual Law Practice.  A year into the pandemic, the ABA opinion attempts to make virtual practice seem like a big scary monster that lawyers should avoid if possible or approach with so much fear that they’re doomed to failure from the start. What a wasted opportunity.  Because if the ABA were at all relevant, here’s how its opinion would read:

As the legal profession approaches the one year anniversary of the pandemic, the ABA acknowledges and celebrates lawyers who kept the wheels of justice turning.  Despite most bar associations’ longstanding refusal to prepare or encourage lawyers to serve clients remotely, most lawyers fortunately realized that the only way to protect and defend clients was to step up their online game. And so within a span of a month or less, thousands of lawyers who only superficially used the Internet for marketing but not to truly serve clients embraced the challenges and showed up for hearings and cases and meetings on Zoom.  Now, a year later, state courts across the country have transitioned to online, saving clients and the court systems hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Meanwhile, client communications were not compromised. In fact, the constraints of being unable to meet clients in person spawned unprecedented creativity as lawyers searched for ways to connect and reassure clients From pop-up virtual conferences to offering free advice to pandemic-impacted businesses to greater emphasis on producing valuable client content to simply picking up the phone to check in, lawyers’ zealously, capably and fearlessly lead their clients through challenging times.

What’s more, after decades of attempting to address lack of civility in the profession, most lawyers showed heart.  Though times have been stressful, particularly for mom lawyers, many corners of the profession today hold a little more respect for what mom lawyers can do (though still a long way to go). Lawyers had their staff’s back including those with special challenges work from home and to provide support for families doing the juggle by exploring options for tutoring and home school support.  And we’ve all become just a little more tolerant and light-hearted about the inevitable catastrophes that are part and parcel of leaving the known for unchartered territory.  

Most gratifying, the legal system didn’t fall apart when the world shut down and where we operated in a space without ethics rules to dictate every move.  Lawyers used common sense and discretion – tools always available though never acknowledged by regulators.  Courts and agencies embraced online hearings, transactions went forward smoothly even with online notaries, and we didn’t experience mass plundering of trust accounts because trust account checks needed to be deposited electronically. Nor has there been a surge of UPL claims or an influx of lawyers practicing remotely, trying to represent clients outside of their jurisdiction.  Indeed, the only false steps that have come during the pandemic have been from idiotic regulators who, for example, insisted on bringing a disciplinary action against the lawyer who last spring dressed as the grim reaper to heighten awareness of the dangers of coronavirus.

Still, for all the benefits that this past year has brought, we still miss us. As it turns out, we’re nostalgic for our colleagues and face to face lunches and coffee and commiseration sessions.  We are human, after all and even the most reclusive among us crave connection and camaraderie that working in this profession can bring. 

We can’t wait til we meet again.  But when that time comes that lawyers can again gather together face to face, the ABA will not be among you.  With this Opinion, we announce that we are disbanding the organization effective today.  At 142 years old, the ABA has had a good run, but it’s time to wind down. The pandemic has taught even the most stodgy and bureaucratic among us that we can trust judges and most lawyers to do the right thing and act in the best interest of the legal profession and the public without our help. We’ve learned that just as we lawyers were not immune to coronavirus, neither are we lawyers immune to the economic, social and political forces and consumer demand that drive every other industry and compel change in the practice of law.   Lastly, the pandemic has humbled us. As grassroots groups of lawyers and vendors unconnected to bar events stepped up with different  programs that introduced a rainbow of new voices, we finally saw that just maybe the ABA was actually part of the problem.  

A bright world fully of possibility awaits on the other side of this season of darkness. We trust that the new generations of lawyers will transform the profession in ways unimaginable and make it stronger and more relevant than ever before. And so, our work is done. 

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