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Smaller, midsize law firms find it’s feast or famine during pandemic

 

Pilar Nichols, a family law attorney with Offit Kurman has seen an overall decrease in new clients, although more issues surrounding child support and alimony are emerging as the economic downturn continues. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Pilar Nichols, a family law attorney with Offit Kurman has seen an overall decrease in new clients, although more issues surrounding child support and alimony are emerging as the economic downturn continues. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

The first month after the lockdown was unusually busy for Kerri Castellini, a trusts and estates lawyer at Price Benowitz LLP.

“We have probably seen our volume of people needing help increase two or threefold since pre-COVID,” Castellini said.

But over at Cohen, Snyder, Eisenberg & Katzenberg, P.A., a Maryland firm that deals largely with personal injury law, attorney Bruce Eisenberg said he had a rapid decline in new cases in March.

Welcome to the world of small and midsize firms, where attorneys are undergoing a broad range of economic experiences – from feast to famine — because of the coronavirus.

Which end of the spectrum they’re on is shaped by many factors, from the type of practice to the nature of their clientele and the extent and size of ongoing caseloads. For some firms, it’s meant new business; for others, work is slowing to a trickle.

Some trusts and estates lawyers like Castellini said business is booming as residents reassess their estate plans or decide, for the first time, that they need to create a will, trust, power of attorney or other instrument.

“It made something that people knew they always had to get done an immediate concern,” Castellini said.

But the closure of courts statewide except for some criminal and civil procedures has hindered bankruptcy and family law attorneys.

That may be starting to change.

Since Gov. Larry Hogan’s March stay-at-home order, Brett Weiss has seen a gradual uptick in inquiries from formerly successful business owners now battered by the economic downturn.

“I’m starting to see the first waves of the tsunami,” said Weiss, a Greenbelt-based bankruptcy lawyer. “Once the courts reopen and evictions and foreclosures resume, the wave is really going to start hitting.”

The postponement of foreclosure hearings until July 25 is stalling proceedings for some bankruptcy lawyers. Once courts reopen, inquiries will increase, Weiss said.

Sari Kurland, a bankruptcy lawyer based in Montgomery County, also said she expects an upward spike in inquiries come July. Kurland has kept busy during the lockdown hiring new employees, updating software and implementing a new advertising campaign.

“It’s this weird dichotomy where we’re not busy at all and the phones aren’t ringing, but I’m hiring new people,” Kurland said. “It’s a very strange situation. I’m not used to so much quiet.”

While Kurland has seen a decline in bankruptcy clients all around, she continues to hear from business owners that struggled even before the pandemic. Some struggling businesses have yet to comprehend the extent of the economic turmoil, she added.

Brian J. Markovitz

Brian J. Markovitz

Brian J. Markovitz, a labor and employment lawyer with Joseph Greenwald & Laake, P.A., received an influx of calls related to unemployment fraud shortly after the March lockdown. Some businesses, Markovitz said, are asking employees to file for unemployment and subsequently work off the clock; those who refuse are getting fired.

“Never has anybody come to me and told me ‘the boss wanted me to work for free and collect unemployment’,” Markovitz said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

As the virus spreads, unemployment fraud cases will likely increase, Markovitz said. The attorney said he is simultaneously working on claims involving employees fired because family members — or they themselves — contracted COVID-19.

With Maryland residents driving much less because of the stay-at-home order, some personal injury attorneys say their practice has hit a roadblock. Motor vehicle accidents – bread-and-butter cases for many personal injury lawyers — have declined exponentially.

And with bars shuttered, DUI offenses are also on a downward slope, said Thomas Maronick Jr., a Maryland attorney who deals largely with these cases.

Some Maryland family lawyers said the lockdown deterred new clients. Forced under the same roof with their spouses, some potential clients are struggling to phone an attorney and start divorce proceedings altogether.

Pilar Nichols, a family law attorney with Offit Kurman has seen an overall decrease in new clients, although more issues surrounding child support and alimony are emerging as the economic downturn continues.

Some atttorneys said their worst fears of economic devastation haven’t played out.

Immigration courts are closed for non-detained cases until June 26 and ICE stopped detaining suspected undocumented immigrant temporarily in March.

Roberto Allen, a Burtonsville-based immigration lawyer, planned on taking a pay cut to avoid laying off workers. Allen said he continues receiving calls from immigrants reaching their one-year asylum date, cases which typically make up a bulk of his work.

He cut his pay for one or two pay periods but was pleasantly surprised as new and existing clients continued phoning in.

“I was expecting a much larger drop in revenue, but it just feels like it’s not that different,” Allen said.

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