The novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, Covid-19, are having an unprecedented impact on businesses and individuals, and law firms are doubling down to provide counsel and maintain the operation of their firms. In this series we’re asking key questions of attorneys about how this global pandemic is affecting the work they do.
David Lash is the managing counsel for Pro Bono and Public Interest Services at O’Melveny.
Lawdragon: What sorts of issues are your pro bono clients facing in light of this pandemic?
David Lash: They’re really very wide-ranging. I think one of the things that those of us in the pro bono and legal aid worlds have come to realize over the last number of years is that when disaster strikes, the legal aid community is really not a first responder. Yes, lawyers play a role at the outset but right now the real focus for helping people is medical. Medical personnel are the true first responders. What we’ve learned from hurricanes and earthquakes and floods and fires is that the need for legal assistance peaks weeks and even months after the disaster occurs. That’s when people really need legal help. Legal help heightens in importance when FEMA applications are denied, when unemployment runs out, when people have lost their jobs and two months later they run out of money and they lose their homes, or scammers descend upon their neighborhood and offer phony remedies.
So the legal community really gears up to do its most work a little bit later. We’re the second phase of assistance. Right now, most of the courts have stopped or have stayed eviction proceedings. A lot of the immigration courts are closed. Two months from now, when hopefully we start getting back to normal and the stays of eviction are lifted and the immigration courts reopen, we’re going to have an incredible amount of work to do.
We urge all of our lawyers to be ready to help in the long term. This is not a short-term thing. If you really want to help, you have to make a lengthy commitment. That’s the big message.
LD: What does your workload look like right now, while we’re all still in lockdown?
DL: We have a lot of work to do right now. Our lawyers have been working with a number of legal aid organizations doing research and drafting FAQs and informational sheets about all sorts of different issues, many of them related to small businesses and nonprofits and what they have to do in terms of labor and employment issues because they’re furloughing people or laying people off. There’s also insurance issues, and tax issues, and questions about their leases because they’re closed now.
We represent a lot of small, startup, low-income entrepreneurs in various business matters and they’re very, very vulnerable to what’s happening right now. Their businesses are on the edge and many of them have to close down because of the quarantine or stay-at-home orders, so they need a lot of guidance and they’re going to need a lot of help going forward. We’re doing research for another legal aid organization about how the stay-at-home orders impact housing issues and legal aid clients and what that’s going to mean in the long term. What happens when the stays of eviction are over? What do the stays mean? Can landlords still file eviction proceedings but not go to court? All sorts of issues like that.
We also have been doing a lot of work in relation to the impact of the Covid crisis on reproductive rights. Several states’ governors have issued orders significantly restricting the ability of hospitals or medical facilities to provide abortion services during this national health emergency, so we’re helping reproductive rights organizations navigate through that. Because an abortion is not an elective medical procedure, women can’t wait. It’s not something that can be delayed and it’s no more dangerous now than it was before. These clinics are set up to provide safe, effective, medically sound assistance to women who are exercising their reproductive rights, so they need help right now. We’re working with the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights on those issues.
LD: Are there other services or businesses that have been deemed essential or non-essential perhaps inappropriately?
DL: We’re working with some gun control organizations because at least several states have taken the position that gun stores are essential services under their state’s quarantine or stay-at-home orders. So we’re researching that issue for some gun control organizations.
We are also doing a lot of research for another legal aid organization about the impact of the Stafford Act, which is the act that’s been in existence for a long time, that gives the government the right to declare a disaster and an emergency. That declaration then releases certain benefits for people impacted by the emergency. We’re working to evaluate how that interplays with the various state orders and other federal orders as well. There’s a lot of work to be done.
LD: How has O’Melveny adjusted to operating during lockdown?
DL: It certainly is challenging but as far as I can tell, it’s working pretty well. About two or three weeks ago, we had a huge pro bono case representing three siblings who were separated from their family at the US-Mexico border and held in detention. We filed a lawsuit along with two legal aid organizations, CAIR Coalition and the Justice Action Network, to try to get these kids released from detention and reunited with their father who was living just a few miles from the detention facility. We were working night and day for about a week or ten days. We must have had ten or twelve lawyers from our firm working on this case, plus the two legal aid organizations and, at the same time, we were dealing with the court and the clerks of the court. Everybody was pounding out a huge amount of work, having meetings, having hearings and it was all being done remotely. Nobody was in an office, everybody was working at home and it worked. It was hard, there were some real logistical hurdles, but it worked.
We got all the papers filed, we did things virtually overnight and we got the kids released from detention and reunited with their father. And nobody was ever in the same room. Nobody was ever in an office. We did it all remotely. It was an impressive display. So I think it’s working rather well.
There are certainly some challenges because everybody likes to be in the same room a lot of the time and we all want to be face to face. We have to put pleadings together and assemble things and have documents and work with the paralegals. You forget how important it is to connect physically, until you can’t do it.
That said, it was quite remarkable. It has been a phenomenal, collective, collaborative effort. We worked hard to make it happen, and we did it and the result was fantastic. We got these kids released from detention and reunited with their father and nobody was ever face to face.
We’re also working with a lot of legal aid organizations about how to move their service delivery methods online because there’s no longer the ability to conduct legal aid clinics and face to face intake interviews. So we’ve been working a lot with our friends in the legal aid community to figure out how the pro bono community can help them deliver services during this very unusual and fraught moment. In California, state-wide and regional disaster relief programs have shifted gears to focus on the Covid-19 crisis. Legal aid organizations are leading this effort, doing a remarkable job, and the pro bono community is providing much needed support and resources.
LD: O’Melveny’s pro bono program is known for being centralized at the firm. Is that making it easier to operate during this pandemic?
DL: Yes, absolutely. We have a very well-established, longstanding commitment to doing pro bono. Our program has been very well organized and as you say, centralized for a long time. There are a lot of advantages to that and some of the advantages are very much at play right now because we do have the infrastructure to run the pro bono program and to switch it to be more online than ever before. This ethos runs throughout the firm and throughout the history of the firm. We have been doing important pro bono work for a century or more. It has been a part of our culture and a part of our firm-wide docket since the days of Mr. O’Melveny himself. So when these moments arise, we’re ready to respond.
LD: What is your top piece of advice for clients right now in this pandemic?
DL: The first piece of advice is to be safe and to engage in all the social distancing and glove-wearing and mask-wearing that you possibly can. The first order of business is to be healthy and to support our medical personnel throughout the country because they are really the front line heroes. So everybody’s got to stay healthy.
Then after that, everybody’s got to be very well-informed about the changing legal landscape and the benefits and programs that are becoming available, as well as those programs that pre-existed this crisis. The legal aid community, and the pro bono community that supports those many wonderful providers, has been working with people who are vulnerable to disasters for a long, long time. Poverty can kill and lawyers are among the fiercest warriors in the battle against poverty. The people on the front lines are the legal aid lawyers and the pro bono lawyers who work with them. It’s really important to know how to access that kind of help and to know when to access it. Part of staying safe is knowing what your legal rights and remedies are, and being able to access help to ensure that those rights and remedies are protected.
Visit our Covid-19 Resource page for a round-up of legal resources regarding the novel coronavirus.