Covid19, lockdown, legal profession: Grief, justice & contingency plans!

Unprecedented circumstances require unprecedented actions

Dr. Manoj Kumar | March 26, 2020


#COVID-19   #coronavirus   #epidemic   #healthcare   #lockdown   #justice   #law   #profession  


Sixteenth March at Hammurabi & Solomon Partners was a usual Monday at work with colleagues starting the week on a turbo-mode. But this Monday was different. It had something unusual about it.

A sense of uncertainty kept struggling to look ahead on how the days ahead would flow. Despite being an optimist, I could not quite stay on course and could see the Covid19 effect increasing closer than it actually appeared.

By lunch we had all the colleagues and partners in the Ashoka Room with all set out on the white board. The to-do lists, the follow-on lists, the urgent and burning assignments lists had to be synced with what-if list to ensure business continuity and hardship to our clients. After two hours we walked out with a resolve to start work from home for half the team immediately and a complete work from home from Wednesday.

What most of us felt after the meeting was that this situation was never a part of the script or syllabus for anyone in the profession of law and judicial delivery system.

How do firms and lawyers plan their work in uncertain times?

How does a judicial body plan its work in uncertain times?

How does a client organisation plan its legal strategy in uncertain times?

On our part, we had decided to keep deciding along the way as we keep getting clarity.
Now, a week later, as we have walked into a three-week national lockdown starting 25th March to contain the Covid19 virus, it was time to reassess and plan the way forward. This essay seeks to share some lessons and learnings in this regard.

To start with, unfolding of the Covid19 developments have shown us how rapidly normal working can be overtaken by fear and then how rapidly even fear can be overtaken by grief without giving enough time to organisations and individuals to anticipate, understand and recalibrate themselves to face the challenging times that lie ahead.

For most of us, what started as an outbreak of a virus, swiftly blew up into a pandemic and, in no time, landed us into a lock-down in matter of weeks. What started as a fear of getting affected has been rapidly replaced by the sinking feeling that our world has changed forever and we need to relook at our workings, processes and priorities. What earlier appeared like a passing phase is now appearing to be much more long-lasting. The immediate and unplanned isolation, the sudden loss of continuity of being has resulted in a distorting our understanding of what is normal and what is not.

The rapid developments have replaced the state of growing fear we were engulfed in a week ago by the grief of the loss of the way we lived and worked forever. Fear of the unknown or unpredictable aspects of the future may also trigger anticipatory grief in times of disaster.

This grief will continue to hit harder in times to come and in order to come out of this we will need mechanisms to cope with it, collectively and individually for all organisations and its members.

The legal profession is equally faced with this challenge. Hence, it will be imperative for firms to invest time and resources in disaster management curriculums for its members in order to enable better comprehension of impending hardships during challenging times, anticipation of fear and grief, understanding and acceptance of grief and handling grief in order to enable grief to give way to positivity and recovery.

Times of disasters are also testing times for the social responsibility and commitment quotients of firms. The uncertain and difficult times bring organisations face to face with the perils, challenges and hardships of its members, staff, clients and the under-privileged in the society.
Ranging from a shout out for financial assistance from a cash-strapped home-shelter or a group of doctors out there in the field, members and staff looking up for financial security or clients looking up for SOS help in an already challenged environment, firms may be confronted with a mirage of such demanding times often without the luxury of prioritising some of them.

Loyalties and commitments are made and tested in such challenging times. Both charity and social responsibilities are as important to cater to as nurturing client and employee relationships. Firms must cater to both as part of their social and professional commitments.
Additionally, justice delayed is justice denied, a proverbial phrase we have often heard for bench-marking our judicial efficiency in the past. Access to justice during times of disaster is very critical in cases which do not have the luxury of time to wait for circumstances to improve.

Suspension of usual working of judicial bodies versus irreparable commercial or other hardships to a litigant is tested against what is “urgent” and therefore what is not urgent. Commercial or other hardships are not necessarily a yardstick for urgency during times of crisis.

It will therefore be necessary for transaction teams to articulate access to justice during times of disaster and provide for alternatives including for emergency arbitrations in transactional documents.  Additionally, firms need to work closely with litigants faced with such challenges as enablers and solutions providers.

It is also imperative for judicial bodies to keep definitions of the class of cases falling under the “urgent” category better aligned to practical realities of hardships of litigants and build capabilities to overcome disruptions in challenging times by use of technology including remotely conducting proceedings through video conferencing and making e-filings and e-support by court registries going forward.

Further, as businesses get confronted with sudden and often unforeseen challenges in their operations and transactions in times of disaster, continuity of business/ability to provide legal support under all circumstances and thus ensuring minimal hardships to clients will need to be a part of competitive strategy amongst firms.

It is therefore important to build in processes and capabilities necessary for business continuity of firms in times of disaster going forward. Remote working tools and technologies used only to support multi-location transactions will need to be made the order of the day along with strengthened virtual working capabilities with cloud-based servers and data management.

Technology and artificial intelligence will see rapidly increased engagement in working models of firms, so it is time for firms to embrace them and integrate them deeper in their day to day working models.

In times of disaster like the present one, it is imperative for firms and organisations to maintain positivity and undertake counselling across its team to maintain and positive environment. Be grateful to others for the achievements and accomplishments of the organisation thus far and focus on what is within the capabilities of the organisation and its people (during challenging times) rather than what is beyond their capabilities.
 
Unprecedented circumstances require unprecedented actions, or as it is also said, when the going gets tough – the tough get going.

As uphill as it may seem, it is possible to manage tough times with the legal profession integrating crisis management strategies as discussed above in their policy/working framework and maintain an ability to implement the same instantly!

The author is the managing partner of Hammurabi & Solomon partners and a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation.
 

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