CORONAVIRUS

Justice at a distance during coronavirus poses challenges

Many lawyers work from home, but courthouses lack technology

Sam Jones, a civil litigator with Shuttleworth, works from his home office as his son, Bob, 5, plays with blocks on the
Sam Jones, a civil litigator with Shuttleworth, works from his home office as his son, Bob, 5, plays with blocks on the floor in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Now working from home, Cedar Rapids lawyer Sam Jones finds himself balancing the needs of both his clients and his kids.

Jones, a civil litigator and senior vice president with Shuttleworth and Ingersoll in Cedar Rapids, accepts his new normal, as do many others during the novel coronavirus outbreak that also has changed the way defense lawyers communicate with defendants in jail and the way trials and hearings are held.

For Jones, that new normal means keeping on top of providing legal services to clients while also tracking his 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son as they decide to pick up trash from a nearby creek bed and discover deer remains.

“The whole situation makes you appreciate teachers and day care workers, and really what everybody in society contributes,” Jones said before pausing in a phone interview to talk to his kids as they came into the home office. “My practice doesn’t change much, just my location. Shuttleworth is 100 percent open for business. We have the technology in place that allows us to work from anywhere.”

All 55 of the firm’s lawyers are working outside the office. A handful of accounting and billing staff remained in the office recently because of hardware needed to do their jobs, but once that is resolved they also will work remotely.

Most of Jones’ clients, which are businesses and institutions, don’t necessarily require in-person contact. But one aspect that may be challenging to working virtually is mediations. Those usually involve a mediator in the room with plaintiffs, defendants and their lawyers. Jones had one of those coming up where the parties now plan to use video conferencing from locations across the state. They agreed to try this to resolve the case because it’s unknown when social distancing guidelines well end.

“I think there has been more willingness to compromise” in moving cases along. Jones said. “Maybe we’ll figure out this is more efficient and we’ll do this all the time.”

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Co-worker Laurie Dawley, a lawyer and senior vice president with Shuttleworth, said her practice is “business as usual” — only at home.

With her children being teenagers, they are fairly “self-sufficient” so she doesn’t have the same challenges as colleagues with younger children.

What she misses most during this time, she said, is the social interaction with co-workers.

“I like to collaborate and bounce ideas off people,” Dawley said.

Lessons from flood

Tim Semelroth, a personal injury lawyer with RSH Legal in Cedar Rapids, said his office also is equipped with technology because it faced some of the same challenges amid the historic flood of 2008 when downtown was under water. Semelroth and the other lawyers and staff at the firm are mostly working remotely.

Technology has made it easier for clients to stay connected virtually and not come into the office, but he said he would have an in-person visit if a client prefers.

Criminal trials pause

Iowa courts have altered some rules and procedures during this time, which have affected how criminal defense lawyers communicate with their clients and how judges conduct court hearings.

Criminal lawyers also have the digital tools to work remotely, but not every technology is available to the judges. Judges work in courthouses with the average age of 100; 30 of them were built before 1900.

Mike Lahammer, a Cedar Rapids defense lawyer, said court procedures changed following the latest Iowa Supreme Court order, which bumped all criminal trials scheduled between mid-March and April 20 to months later, and allows lawyers and defendants to appear for hearings by phone or video.

Lahammer, who is working from home, said the lack of jail visits with defendants likely will hinder progress on cases. He understands why the in-person jail visits were halted, but it does affect the attorney/client relationship, he said.

Mark Brown, also a Cedar Rapids defense lawyer, noted that since in-person visits were cut, the jail has allowed lawyers to have more phone access with clients.

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Brown and Lahammer said judges are allowed to use discretion in these cases and have been accommodating to defense and prosecution lawyers.

Brown has remained in his office because it’s only him and a secretary. But they don’t allow walk-ins and have limited in-person meetings with clients, communicating mostly by phone or emails.

“It’s a lot like the flood but you can’t see a forecast of when this might be over,” Brown said.

Like a ‘ghost town’

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, who remains working in his courthouse office, said it has been like a “ghost town” there.

Defense lawyers aren’t coming over, and the assistant county attorneys and other staff are rotating days to work from home. The prosecutors have separate offices, so they have some space and walls between them.

“It has been strange to have a sentencing where the defendant and his lawyer appear by phone and only I and a judge are in the courtroom,” Vander Sanden said.

Video conferencing isn’t available in each courtroom, which would at least allow Vander Sanden and the judge to see the defendants.

Vander Sanden said he thinks a defendant being able to make a guilty plea for a felony in writing, which is allowed during this time, “waters down the impact on the person convicted.”

“Of course, it depends on the crime. … Can’t say one size fits all,” Vander Sanden added. “Who’s to say the changes implemented now might make us rethink how we are doing things.”

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Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill agreed that it’s “weird” for him to conduct hearings by phone, and also feels it changes the reality of serious proceedings.

Sometimes in a sentencing, when he has discretion on the prison term, he may not make up his mind until he hears from the defendant and can observe him or her during the hearing — “how do they act, what’s their demeanor.”

That would be difficult or even impossible by phone, and there is only one courtroom on the first floor that has video conferencing capability from the Linn County Jail. If the defendant isn’t being held in jail, that’s not even an option.

“If it’s a more serious crime, I wouldn’t do it by phone,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill understands these are difficult times but points out the more trials and hearings are moved forward, the more it will eventually create a backlog on the docket.

Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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