As senior partner of an international disputes firm, I am on the road a lot. I find it invaluable to see clients where they live and work. There are many parts of the world where not much happens until you show up.
I have participated in court hearings in London and Larnaca (Cyprus), interviewed witnesses in Karachi and Kyiv, and taken depositions from Rome to Riyadh. Our firm also does significant international white-collar criminal work and so many of our clients are not always entirely free to travel.
I have seen the insides of prisons from Guantanamo Bay to Kuwait to Pakistan to Egypt. It is sometimes fascinating, sometimes dull or grueling, but I have been moving around the world fairly regularly for 35 years. It is strange and very different not to be doing so.
In mid-March, I was scheduled to visit Kuwait and Pakistan for some long-scheduled client meetings, with a quick stop in London. I was scheduled to leave on Sunday, March 15, foolishly ignoring the warning to Caesar to beware the ides of March. The Wednesday before i was due to leave, Kuwait closed its borders to non-Kuwaitis. OK, so I would just go to Pakistan then.
By Friday, it was clear that while I might make it to Pakistan, I probably couldn’t make it back. So I cancelled that trip, went to the office on Monday, March 16, and have basically left the house only to pick up curbside groceries and once, joyfully, to meet (at a healthy social distance) my brand new grandson, born March 28. Thankfully, we were both in Bethesda, Md., as it would have been hard to see him if I were stuck in Islamabad.
Things Are Working
I have no real complaints. Thankfully, my family is well and isolating in place. Our WiFi is working. We have divided the firm into Zoom work groups and one or more meets every day. My partners and I meet twice a week to monitor how things are going and managing the building blocks of doing the work of the firm, trying to do business development, and trying to bill and collect on some semblance of a normal schedule. We are working remotely, staying in touch with clients and colleagues, and meeting payroll.
We are able to schedule our overseas calls and video sessions so that our mornings tend to line up with mid to late afternoons in Europe and the Middle East. Occasionally, we have a very early or very late call with Asia or Australia. We don’t know how long this will go on, but we expect that this will be the new normal for at least the next few months.
So why is everything so weird? Because in my experience law is fundamentally a collaborative, hands-on, sitting-together business. We frequently are in court. Many courts are now closed. Deadlines have been moved out for weeks or indefinitely. Clients know that we have limited control over court dockets, but many of them want or need their cases to move forward as quickly as possible. We know their cases are not moving forward and we don’t know when they will.
One of my partners handled a high-profile arraignment remotely. Only the defendant was in court. The judge was home; the prosecutor was home; the defense lawyer was home. The client, like many clients who have not been found guilty of anything (and in the case of our Guantanamo clients, have not even or will be charged) goes back to jail. Their incarceration is extended, often under conditions that threaten their safety and now their lives.
Even at the office, the life of the firm often occurs in the hallway or the lunchroom. You learn about other cases, share information and experience, and stay in touch with the lives of your colleagues. Our firm is split between New York and Washington. I try to spend a day per week in New York if I am not out of the country, to work with and spend time with my colleagues. We all ride the Acela back and forth to meet clients and colleagues; now the Acela is cancelled.
To be sure, many lawyers have found a niche in “virtual firms,” which save the cost of bricks and mortar and invest heavily in technology. But that is not the model for most lawyers and law firms who have developed in a very different milieu.
The Human Touch
The heart of our practice has always been face-to-face contact with clients. These in-person meetings allow us to strengthen our relationships and better understand our client’s objectives while we work with them to analyze their problems and devise a strategy. Often, it is the subtleties that can make or break a case.
Spending time together allows us to build trust and fully appreciate what is important to a legal problem or claim—even if a client may not realize it or may be uncomfortable sharing this information. Being there in-person conveys the message that we care and are on their team and allows us to ask questions, listen, and work together to determine what information we have and what we need.
Understanding the client’s legal and business cultures is also critical and very likely to shape the way a client thinks about issues. You often need to meet with their local lawyers to coordinate a multi-jurisdictional strategy. None of this can happen now.
There are certainly much greater problems in our world today than those faced by the vast majority of lawyers. Most of the clients’ issues will wait. The important thing now is for everyone to stay safe and healthy and isolated so that this plague will end and life will resume. But for me and my colleagues and many lawyers I know, the way we are doing it now is very different from the way we have spent our careers.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Eric Lewis, senior partner at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC, practices in the areas of international litigation and arbitration, serious fraud, banking, international insolvency and complex securities litigation.