The Way We Work Now: The pandemic and family law

By NJSBA Staff posted 01-11-2021 10:42

  

Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series that looks at how New Jersey State Bar Association members’ work lives have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic struck, Alison Leslie found the physical shift to working from home relatively easy, since the Morristown family law attorney often worked remotely. Aside from upgrading her internet connection, she had the technology she needed.

But 10 months later, Leslie discovered the pandemic wrought changes in other ways, large and small, to her personal and professional life. 

With her husband back at his law firm, Leslie found there were more challenges to juggling work and parenting their young children, ages eight and nine, who are attending school remotely.

“I’m actually working off our sunroom. I specifically work here because I can see my son at the kitchen table to make sure he’s sitting down for class,” she said.

Her workday has on occasion been interrupted by her son running around the house for gym class or the sounds of her children playing the violin or recorder while she is on a call with a judge or client.

“I have found there’s less of a boundary now. Previously I wouldn’t have given out my cellphone number to clients. It’s not uncommon to get texts at 8, 9 or 10 at night because they don’t have a boundary either,” said Leslie, a former chair of the Solo and Small-Firm Section.

Leslie noted there have been advantages to working exclusively from home, as well.

“Normally, I’d have to figure out childcare, but because we’re able to do things virtually, I don’t have to worry about that now,” she said.

Pandemic and family law

The pandemic has had an impact on the legal advice Leslie gives clients, especially in custody arrangements when one parent has COVID-19 and the other is at risk of being exposed.

“Previously, I’d say to a client, ‘You shouldn’t move out until we’ve agreed to certain aspects of our case,’” Leslie said. Now, moving out can be critical from a health perspective.

The lockdown has also created higher levels of animosity between some partners, prompting some of her clients to urgently want to move out, she said.

“I think what we’re seeing is an increase of anxieties and tension at home, certainly during the lockdown. I don’t know if there’s been an increase in [divorce] filings, but I’m certainly seeing more clients with substantial anxieties and more stress,” she said.

Virtual mediation has increased during the pandemic, which has pros and cons, she said.

“It’s actually more cost effective because you’re not dealing with travel time. However, as a mediator there’s something to having people in your office in-person, and being able to close a deal,” Leslie said.

“Clients love it for the most part, but the problem is sometimes it’s difficult for them to find seclusion from their spouse or their kids,” she said, which would enable them to speak freely on the phone to her about their case without other family members overhearing.

Virtual trials have posed a challenge because Leslie said she can’t gauge nuances in a defendant’s body language or facial expression.

“There are facial tells that you can’t see on Zoom because they’re on their best behavior,” she said.

“A person will behave better when they’re looking at themselves. They’ll fix their hair, make sure their tie is straight or they won’t slump in their chair or interrupt the other party,” she said.

Leslie hasn’t been in a courtroom since February, and has conducted only one in-person deposition, which was in October.

“I wouldn’t do it now because of the uptick in cases,” she said.

But when the pandemic is over, “I’m hoping some positive things come out of this. I’m hopeful that the courts will continue to be understanding and gracious with working parents. But at some point in time, I hope we go back to some sense of normalcy.”

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