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Practice of law may never be the same, Maryland attorneys say

Tydings & Rosenberg LLP in Baltimore recruits and ensures women and minorities advance within the firm because it is necessary to compete in the city’s diverse marketplace, according to partner Ferrier R. Stillman. ‘It is the right thing to do and it is very smart for business,’ she says. (File photo)

Attorney Ferrier R. Stillman of Tydings & Rosenberg LLP in Baltimore. (The Daily Record/File photo)

The practice of law may never be the same after the pandemic-compelled quarantine is lifted and courts are back operating at full speed, according to longtime Maryland lawyers.

Attorneys accustomed to having face-to-face meetings and exchanging documents in person have had to confer via videoconference, which allows them to work from home but deprives them of the nuance of body language. Just how many of these virtual lawyering sessions will return to conference rooms and courtrooms when the COVID-19 emergency ends remains to be seen, the lawyers said.

In addition, the age of law firms’ occupying an entire floor — or floors — of an office building may be over, as managing partners realize that much of the work they believed had to be done in an office can be performed from home — and less expensively, the attorneys added.

And time will also tell whether the goodwill and heightened civility among lawyers – engendered by their common goal of surviving the pandemic – will continue when the emergency passes.

“Zoom, zoom, zoom,” attorney Timothy F. Maloney said, referring to the videoconferencing website in describing the future of law. “We’re going to be doing a lot more remote work.”

Such virtual meetings are fine for attorneys-only meetings and courtroom scheduling conferences with judges, he added.

But they ill serve the demands of pretrial depositions and the final stages of settlement negotiations and mediated resolutions, where body language and subtle facial cues can speak louder than words when conveying messages to a client and the other side, Maloney said.

For example, a subtle in-person “grimace” to a client is an effective way to get him or her to be less talkative during a deposition, and going into “a back office and rolling up (your) sleeves” helps in reaching out-of-court settlements, Maloney added.

“There is no substitute for being there,” said Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwald & Laake PA in Greenbelt.

“When things get down to the nitty-gritty, you’ve got to be there in person,” he said. “It loses its human impact when it’s on a computer screen.”

Attorney Ferrier R. Stillman agreed, saying that in-person depositions yield more truthful answers than do pretrial interviews and factfinding sessions conducted via videoconference.

“You can see the person’s body language, you can see their expression” in person, said Stillman, of Tydings & Rosenberg LLP in Baltimore.

“It’s easier to convince deponents of the need to tell the truth and the strength of your case when it’s in person,” added Stillman, who specializes in family law. “The lawyer taking the deposition can put more pressure on the deponent to answer the question truthfully when they are both in person.”

With regard to office downsizing, attorney J. Bradford McCullough recalled that, early in his career, law firms had rooms dedicated for legal research. All that square footage for law books became unnecessary when legal research went online with such providers as Westlaw and LexisNexis, McCullough said.

Likewise, he said, the ease of videoconferencing and doing legal research from home might lead some law firm administrators to say after the quarantine, “Why am I paying all this rent?”

“The line of work I would really be nervous to be in (now) is commercial real estate broker,” said McCullough, of Lerch, Early & Brewer Chtd. in Bethesda.

Baltimore solo practitioner J. Wyndal Gordon agreed that technology may drive law offices to become smaller, but he said they will always be necessary because clients expect an office and the profession’s ideals demand that attorneys have a dedicated space for the practice of law.

“Lawyers do need bricks and mortar,” Gordon said. “There’s a level of professionalism that the practice of law deserves. It’s a privilege and it should be treated as such.”

Speaking of professionalism, Gordon said the pandemic-compelled quarantine, while dispiriting, has spurred opposing attorneys to speak more kindly to each other and to be more solicitous of their requests for more time to respond.

“The lawyers are nicer and more compassionate, more civil to one another,” said Gordon, who markets himself online as The Warrior Lawyer. “You’re almost (more) like a California lawyer than a Baltimore lawyer; you’re more laid back.”

Gordon expressed hope that the goodwill lasts beyond the pandemic.

“It would be nice if it does,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.”

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