In March 2020, during the first full week that our offices were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I remember sitting in my kitchen eating lunch and thinking about what would happen next. In addition to my concerns about the looming pandemic, on a personal level, I was up for partner in just a few months, my largest matters were starting to slow down because of the pandemic, and I still had not quite figured out how to reconfigure our new home to work remotely full-time with two toddlers bouncing off the walls.
Minutes later, I got a phone call that would lead to one of the most important and rewarding experiences of my career. I was asked to be the lead associate for an important new pro bono engagement: Our partner Brien O’Connor had just been appointed as a special master by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in a case involving efforts to reduce the prison population and mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the Commonwealth’s prisons and jails.
Our team’s initial task was to mediate among the various parties to the case—the attorney general’s office, the Department of Correction, the parole board, the chief justice of the trial courts, the district attorneys and sheriffs for each of the Commonwealth’s 14 counties, and representatives of the public and private criminal defense bar—to try to reach a negotiated resolution on a number of complex issues.
By the following day, our team was engaged in 14 hours a day of calls and virtual meetings with the parties, as we were all still adjusting to the new remote working environment. The matter quickly consumed my life.
By the next week, we filed a report and recommendations with the SJC, which had the support of several of the parties and was largely adopted by the court. Since the court’s initial order, our special master team has remained closely involved as the pandemic has evolved. We report weekly to the SJC regarding the incidence of infection in prisons, testing that has been conducted, the number of prisoners released, and, most recently, the number of vaccinations administered to prisoners and prison staff.
We have also continued to play a key role in mediating ongoing and new disputes among the parties, and have been largely successful in resolving issues without court involvement.
Being a part of the special master team has been eye-opening as to the inner workings of the criminal justice system and the importance of the relationships among the various stakeholders involved in the system. I am so proud to be part of a firm that stepped up to play this key role to help the court and the Commonwealth navigate this piece of the pandemic, and I am certain that this amazing experience was a significant factor in my promotion to the partnership.
While it would have been a huge accomplishment to make partner in any year, the uncertainty and unique challenges of 2020 made it a particularly gratifying experience. Not being able to interact with my colleagues and the partners in my group in person leading up to the partnership decisions left me questioning how my prospects might be affected. But one of the silver linings of last year was that I was able to celebrate with my family in real time immediately after I received the good news on the partnership decision. That was one of my most memorable pandemic experiences.
A Permanent Shift to Some Remote Work Lies Ahead
We all had to make countless adjustments in 2020 as we adapted to our new reality. Overnight, I went from traveling every week for depositions in a contested Chapter 11 bankruptcy to conducting depositions, hearings, and even trials from my bedroom. The quiet humming of the office and the courtroom was replaced with the commotion of my kids bounding down the hallway.
After the past year, I have been thinking a lot about what our industry looks like post-Covid and how I will grow into my new role as a partner in that context. One change I foresee is that a lot of depositions and shorter hearings will likely remain remote. After successfully doing those things remotely for a year, getting on a plane every week now seems unthinkable. That has serious implications in terms of opening up my time for other matters, as well as cost savings for our clients.
Of course, there will always be things that we will need to do in person, such as trials and key witness depositions, but I think we will see a permanent, notable shift in how much work is done remotely. While there remains much uncertainty for our industry in the next few years, I am incredibly excited to take on these challenges in my new role.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Rob Roberts is a partner at Ropes & Gray LLP in Boston. He is a civil litigator who focuses on commercial litigation, including bankruptcy litigation and high stakes deal litigation, among other areas.