By K. Q. THOMAS, Four Points News
Among other rights, the Sixth Amendment gives Americans the prerogative to confront an accuser in a criminal action. This means the judicial system is dependent on face-to-face meetings.
That system had to pivot quickly in March 2020, when the pandemic made it difficult, if not impossible, to meet with anyone face-to-face.
Steiner Ranch resident Tom Gehring, who practices personal injury litigation and trial law, said his work life has shifted dramatically since last year.
Gehring has his office in Lakeway. He began his practicing law 26 years ago in Houston, so about half of his caseload is in the Gulf Coast area.
Pre-pandemic, he would travel to the Houston area three or four times a month for depositions, client meetings and trials. But not this past year. “I think I have physically been to Houston maybe three times since March 2020,” he said.
“Everything has pivoted to online/virtual meetings,” he said. “My work day changed quite a bit after the pandemic hit.”
Gehring, his wife Deanna and their daughter Caroline moved to Steiner Ranch in 2008, after 17 years in Houston. The couple met at the University of Texas in Austin in 1990. Deanna also works for UT. Caroline is a senior at Oklahoma State University and plans to attend law school next year.
Virtual meetings with clients was not a new process for Gehring when the pandemic hit. He began using Zoom in 2019 for depositions and such. He could depose someone based in Houston from his Lakeway office, without six or seven hours of driving.
In the early months of the pandemic, he moved to all contact via phone, email, text or Zoom.
“I started seeing clients again in person (with all safety protocols in place) by August or September,” he said. “However, it’s still 75 to 80 percent virtual.”
Talking with clients and taking depositions online is no hardship. But virtual trials are a different story, for him and the entire trial system. Texas is one of the few states to conduct virtual trials, he said. But the numbers are low. According to the Texas Bar Journal, in 2019, Texas courts tried over 9,000 cases, criminal and civil. In 2020, that number dropped to 239.
On average, Gehring takes three to five cases to trial each year. The majority settle before trial. This year, he hasn’t gone to trial once.
Virtual trials are clunky and disjointed, he said, with the usual technical issues, like buffering and lag time. But keeping the attention of participants on Zoom can be likened to herding cats. Take jury selection, for example. The process usually whittles a pool of up to 60 people down to the mandatory 12. Anyone who has been called for jury duty knows how hard it can be to maintain attention during that drawn out whittling process.
“I know a lawyer who recently tried a case via Zoom,” Gehring said. “One of the potential jurors was online, while he was in his car driving around. He stopped for lunch at a fast food, drive-thru window. He was not chosen as a juror.
“I have seen other cases where a person just gets up and walks away from their computer for a few minutes during jury selection. Then everything has to stop until they come back.”
Post-pandemic, jury trials will go back to normal, Gehring said. “There are some very small, less complicated cases where a virtual trial would be fine. Also, some trials are held just in front of the judge, where the judge acts as both the judge and jury. A virtual trial would be fine for that, going forward.”
Practicing law is a business. And like almost every business, it took a financial beating during the pandemic. Gehring is a solo practitioner, so he didn’t have to worry about maintaining a staff during the slump. But he did see a 25 percent drop in new cases in 2020, directly related to the pandemic.
“When a restaurant, gym or salon shuts down, the revenue stops immediately,” he said. “Since my practice is all contingent-fee based, meaning I only get paid once a case resolves by settlement or trial verdict, there is a substantial lag time (from six months up to three or more years) between when I start working on a new case and when I get paid.
“Because of this, I am now seeing some drop in revenue that I didn’t see during 2020.”
Post-pandemic, the legal profession is unlikely to return to the status quo, he said. “There will be more and more in-person depositions, but a lot less,” he said.
“Hearings where lawyers have disputes on legal issues in front of a judge have also pivoted to mostly virtual. I think that will be here to stay as well. It saves time and expense. It’s easier to participate and more efficient for courts. These are all positive changes.”
Gehring said that overall, the legal system handled the pandemic well. “It was a little shocking on how fast we had to adjust in March, April and May (of 2020) but once folks started adjusting, things started to smooth out.
“I do think that in late 2021 and beyond, most things will be back to normal.”