How Is the Pandemic Changing Practices? Results of a Survey

The practices of elder law attorneys and special needs planners are changing rapidly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a just-completed ElderLawAnswers survey of practitioners nationwide. While business is down for many, a few firms have experienced an increase. Whatever the state of their business, respondents generously shared tips for handling document executions and setting up a remote office.

The survey was sent out on Thursday, March 19, 2020, and responses were accepted through Monday, March 23. We received 141 responses over that four-day span, as more and more cities or states issued orders to limit or almost completely halt business activity to blunt the spread of the lethal virus.

Highlights of the survey’s findings include:

  • 34 percent of respondent firms had shifted to working remotely at the time of the survey;
  • 10 percent said they would be doing so soon;
  • 35 percent were doing client video conferences, with Zoom the most popular platform;
  • Most firms reported a change in business volume since the outbreak, although only 9 percent experienced an increase;
  • Many law firms were still unsure how they were going to handle document executions;
  • Those that have developed safer document execution systems shared the details.

Below is a summary of responses to each of the survey’s questions (view the full survey results here). Our sincere thanks to all who participated in the survey during this trying time.

Q1. Have you closed your office and are you working remotely?

As of the time of the survey, about a third of respondents reported that they had closed their offices and were working remotely. Another 10 percent said they would be doing so soon. These percentages have undoubtedly risen or will soon rise as more jurisdictions issue orders forcing non-essential businesses to close.

Other firms said they had worked out hybrid arrangements. One was allowing clients to drop off documents at the office, but were doing appointments by video or phone. Two other firms were keeping staff in the office but were handling all matters remotely except for signings. Still other firms had cut down on the number of employees reporting to work in the office. One firm noted that it was “offering some curb service as well” (for more on this approach, see the question on document executions below).

Q2 & Q3. Are you doing video conferences with clients, and if so, what service are you using?

About 35 percent said they were doing video conferences with clients. As for services, Zoom was the clear favorite, with nearly two-thirds saying they were using it or plan to use it exclusively or along with other services. (“I suspect the owners of Zoom are going to be very, very wealthy if they aren't already,” quipped one respondent.) Other choices were, in roughly descending order of use: FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangout, GoToMeeting, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Microsoft Teams, Legaler, Blizz, and Webex. Several firms said they were doing remote appointments by phone only.

Q4. How are you handling document executions?

This question was a tough one for the attorney respondents. Many were still unsure how they were going to handle executions and were either putting off signings as long as possible or still working on developing safe systems. Some expressed the hope that their state would soon temporarily relax regulations to allow for remote notarizing and witnessing. Some states, like Florida, had already enacted online notarization laws, and in the wake of the outbreak New York State now allows video notarization.

A number of firms were resorting to what one described as “car-hop signing” where the clients stay in their car and the attorney and witnesses watch them sign – through a closed window, in the case of one firm.

A couple of firms that were still doing in-office signings said they have clients review the documents remotely in order to minimize the client’s time in the office. Firms doing in-person signings were being careful to keep a distance of at least six feet (often moving signings to a large conference room), and at some firms witnesses stand outside the room where the signing is taking place. Afterwards, hands are washed, all surfaces sanitized along with anything else clients may have touched, and clients get to keep their pens or pens are disinfected. At one firm, clients and staff use hand sanitizer both before and after the signing.

Two firms had resorted to “porch signings” – one firm doing the signing on the client’s front porch, the other on the firm’s own office porch. Several firms were using what they described as a “mobile notary.” A few said they were asking clients to take care of notarization themselves.

Several firms said that following signings they let the documents sit for a few days, giving any live virus microbes time to expire. (It is still unclear how long the virus remains active on paper, although this January 2020 review article of known research on the SARS and MERS viruses -- but not Covid-19 specifically -- found that such viruses can persist for up to four or five days on paper surfaces.) 

Following are some other innovative document execution procedures shared by respondents:

  • “Behind glass, gloves”
  • “offering evening and weekend appointments to spread out traffic to the office”
  • “I've moved the signings out of my office to a conference room with a large table so people can spread out. No more than 5 people in the room. . . . “
  • “Video, email, docusign”
  • “Clients in one room, attorney and witnesses in another.”
  • “Outdoors, 6 feet apart, very quickly”
  • “For those in closed [nursing] facilities, we will try to visit through a window or other glass partition and talk via cell phone. Take a will for example. I (the notary) and the two witnesses will have only the page we need to sign. The client will have all of the pages they need to sign. After signing an aide will take the pages from the client and put then in an envelope. We will then let it sit for maybe 10 days and then assemble the pages, do the copying and scanning, etc.”
  • “Notary and witness pages are not touched by the client . . . “
  • “all witnesses signatures and dates are entered 2 or 3 days later to avoid contact with the pages touched by clients”

Q5. If you haven’t closed your office, what precautions are you taking?

Among the firms that had not closed their offices, the overwhelming majority were practicing social distancing and sanitizing surfaces, and doing as much as possible remotely. About a quarter have taken the step of removing magazines from their waiting areas. One firm put up a “no handshakes/no hugs” sign so that clients would not feel self-conscious about maintaining distance. Another was staggering appointments to minimize office traffic. Several firms stressed that they were practicing frequent hand-washing, with one firm requiring it upon entrance.

Q6. Have you noticed a change in your volume of business since the outbreak began?

More than two-thirds of respondents reported that their amount of business had changed. However, many simply answered “Yes” so we don’t know in which direction the change was. That’s our mistake; we had incorrectly assumed that if there were any change in demand for services, it would be a reduction. In fact, nine percent of respondents said they’ve experienced an increase in business.

Another 22 percent have not yet seen a change in their volume, although a number said they were bracing for a decline soon. The vast majority (68 percent) of those who have seen a change and indicated the change’s direction said business is down. Assessments of the change ranged from “slight” to “significant” and even “drastic.” A few respondents noted that while new business is down, existing clients are in a rush to finish pending work.

Q7. Do you have any suggestions for other firms operating remotely?

About one-third of the respondents had suggestions for other firms operating remotely, and many of these suggestions appear quite helpful. Below are a few we picked out to highlight but we encourage you to go to the PDF of the survey responses and look at the entire list (scroll down to Question 7, page 21).

  • “Keep in touch with clients and colleagues. The connection is really helpful. Clients are looking to us for advice and calm.”
  • “Be proactive. Call active clients to let them know you're open and available for them. Notify other clients via e-mail alerts, message on firm website and social media posts.”
  • “There are many services that support remote operations for telecom and practice management. Our state bar has a number of resources and recommendations as well. That is a good place tostart.” (Arizona respondent)
  • “Make sure you have significant wifi capacity at home if you are going to do online meetings.”
  • “Make sure you have a good VPN to maintain the security of your client files.”
  • “We use NetDocuments, which has been a huge help during this time.”
  • “There are numerous articles out there. See John Olmstead's article/blog.”
  • “Schedule time with colleagues to keep in touch and ensure there is no social isolation in the virtual workplace.”
  • “Issue is getting the mail, and secondly, sanitizing the mail so it is safe to touch (virus lives on paper for 4 days).”
  • “just do it. not worth it to spread virus. if business slows it will come back – don’t worry!!”

To see the full survey results and responses, click here.

For ElderLawAnswers’ article “Some Tools and Tips for Setting Up a Virtual Elder Law Office,” click here.