A Family Law Perspective on the COVID-19 Crisis

Portrait of happy parents piggybacking kids outdoors

The memes may be funny—a quick search for “divorce lawyer COVID memes” will show you what I mean—but they hit a little too close to home for some family law attorneys.

When Washington’s stay-at-home order went into effect March 23, the uncertainty of where my firm, Navigate Law Group, might be when the dust settled weighed heavily on all of us. Similar concerns were felt throughout the legal community, and the ability of firms to embrace technology became a pressing issue. My firm has been almost completely paperless since it was formed, so the transition was fairly seamless for all attorneys and staff. It is clear others haven’t had it quite as easy. Attorneys and judicial officers in the legal community have had problems with finding documents in their files, video conferencing, navigating different processes, and obtaining signatures from clients, among other things. Cyber security is obviously a major concern, and during the recent WSBA Family Law Midyear session on Employing Technology to Protect Your Clients and Your Firm, it became very clear how behind some attorneys were. The presenters did a great job outlining the security basics and providing helpful hints to maintain a secure practice. One thing to note is that faxing still seems to be a safe choice.

March and April were some of the slowest months I, as well as other attorneys in my firm, have ever experienced. Potential client calls were down, people in the process of becoming clients changed their minds, and current clients decided to pause pursuing their legal matters. Some firms tried to pivot with the change, but it is unknown whether their tactics were successful. Our firm created a virtual legal clinic to replace the Clark County Family Law Clinic and Lawyer Talk Clinic until in-person sessions can be held again. Attorneys have been able to assist, on average, eight people a week since the clinic started in April. It is, to my knowledge, the only free legal clinic offered in the area with no income restrictions.

After the initial lull, things picked up again in May, and in June I experienced my busiest month since late last year. It is clear staying at home with significant others for an extended period of time wasn’t good for some couples, and made some already tenuous relationships worse. My caseload now is the heaviest it has ever been, and the same can be said for all other full-time attorneys in my firm. I recently spoke with a family law attorney at Northwest Justice Project, and they are completely overloaded.

The number one misconception people seemed to hold is that the courthouse is closed, and nothing can be done for their issue until it reopens. Some people still think that. The confusion of pro se litigants and people looking to start family law cases was compounded by canceled court dates and a lack of resources. The standard for moving forward in a family law matter became whether or not a judicial officer would consider it an emergency. Some people weighed their options while stuck at home with an abuser. The focus of most existing cases became whether or not a settlement could be reached. Agreements reached prior to the stay-at-home order came into question again when layoffs and furloughs became part of everyday conversation.

However, the court system has probably handled the stay-at-home order the best. The Clark County Superior and District Courts have kept attorneys informed, and held Zoom meetings to go over emergency orders and answer questions. Hearings are scheduled about a month in advance, but the hearings taking place are well-argued, concise, and thoughtfully ruled on by commissioners. People, for the most part, are conforming to the video-conferencing etiquette, and the occasional blunder is shown grace by the judicial officer—or at least provides entertainment for the other attendees.

Like with all things, people evolve and adjust. Going through a change like this is hard for everyone—attorneys, clients, pro se litigants, and judicial officers alike. If you are an attorney looking to help clients, potential clients, or pro se litigants, my recommendation is to focus on education. We, as attorneys, get updates from the court system in real time. A little bit of knowledge on how the process has changed and what options people have can go a long way for someone unfamiliar with the system and going through a family law matter.

If you are an attorney looking to volunteer, check out your local Volunteer Lawyers Program to see if they do video conferencing appointments. I also recommend simply checking in with your friends, colleagues, and yourself. Managing a caseload can be isolating, and when you add a stay-at-home order on top of that, it can be a recipe for a potential decline in mental health.

Family law attorneys have been on a rollercoaster ride since the stay-at-home order went into effect. Be considerate, be professional, be kind—and what the hell, keep sending us those divorce attorney memes.