By: Archiebald Faller Capila
Because of the current situation the world is facing, certain measures have been adopted to keep up with what is deemed by most as the “new normal”. In this day and age, a radical change in how we do things and how we interact with others has taken place. The pandemic has indeed taken a toll on everybody’s life. The stress and consequences COVID-19 brings are incomparable because, for the first time in our lifetime, we are experiencing first hand a global recession.
Accordingly, every work in whatever field of specialization is gravely affected as well. The legal practice serves as no exception to the current plight of professionals all over the world. While the practice of law has stood against the tests of time and became an institution in itself, it cannot be denied that proper authorities have adopted means to follow government-issued protocols. In short, the practice of law has now taken into consideration a handful of methods to keep up with the times—to keep up with the new normal.
From observing the now-advised social distancing to utilizing the ever-evolving world of the digital sphere, lawyers are now exploring a multitude of means to keep up with the trends. While the profession has been used to face-to-face interaction since time immemorial, the situation today now paves way for several practitioners to think of new means in engaging with their clients. Modern approaches such as engaging in online platforms, utilizing virtual applications, and processing papers through the help of the internet are among the many ways our lawyers are now exploring.
However, given the scope of the practice of law, it is impossible to fully encapsulate how lawyers are currently coping with their respective works. Accordingly, the practice is incapable of rigid description, unless we have someone who works at the forefront, experiencing all the abrupt changes related to a handful of court procedures and government policies related to the same.
Atty. Rochelle Marie R. Solis, currently a Clerk of Court V, has had her fair share of experiencing the shift of practice in the legal profession. Being a part of the frontlines of the judicial branch, Atty. Solis is among the handful of lawyers who have seen how the current legal system adjusted to our new normal. While there may be a lot of workload in her office right now, Atty. Solis was able to share her time with Barrista Solutions to describe and explain what it’s like practicing the profession of law in this time of the pandemic, lockdowns, quarantines, and the new normal as a whole.
Barrista Solutions: How do you compare today’s practice of law in the time of pandemic to the usual Court routines before the announcement of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ)?
Atty. Solis: The practice of law has a very wide spectrum – giving legal advice, drafting legal documents, representing clients in legal negotiations and court proceedings such as lawsuits, and even teaching. For purposes of this interview, I will focus on the practice of law in the court set-up since this is the environment I work in.
In court and any other office or establishment, the first basic and important difference would be the setting up of a COVID 19 – Office Response Protocol. This involves safety protocols inside the courtroom and staffroom such as regular disinfecting, social distancing, daily temperature, and symptoms check, no eating together and sharing of food, wearing of gloves and protective clothing when necessary, and so forth.
The major difference I have to say is the shift to no face-to-face transactions. Before this pandemic, we do face-to-face transactions in almost everything - from posting of a bail bond, receiving of incoming pleadings, payment of fees, officiating of weddings, follow-up of cases, procuring of case file copies to the most crucial which is the conduct of hearing of cases.
Barrista Solutions: What major adjustments did you make to cope with this unforeseen and abrupt change in legal processes and routine?
Atty. Solis: Two major adjustments in our routine: (1) the transition to no face-to-face transactions especially the conduct of hearing through video-conferencing but at the same time still having traditional in court hearings; and (2) being able to function in full operation with only half of the staff physically reporting while the other half work from home (skeleton staff system).
Barrista Solutions: What are the advantages and disadvantages of practicing law in this time of the so-called “New Normal”?
Atty. Solis: One of the advantages that I see is being able to adapt and take advantage of modern technology. For instance, a lawyer who was locked down abroad need not file a motion for resetting of a scheduled hearing on the ground that he cannot attend since he can now validly represent his/her client via videoconferencing while still abroad.
However, the aforesaid advantage has several disadvantages. For one, a good number of our legal practitioners are not tech-savvy. A lot of technical difficulties have been encountered in the conduct of video conferencing and this is magnified when the counsel appearing does not have any computer know-how such that instruction as simple as clicking a specific button becomes a major feat. Another apparent problem would be our slow to no internet connection resulting in lag or incoherent exchanges. And for certain stages in the court hearing, video conferencing becomes a hindrance rather than a tool such as during marking of evidence and presentation of witnesses especially when one is requested to do a re-enactment of the crime or when there is the fear of possible coercion towards witnesses. In both instances, it becomes apparent that doing court proceedings face-to-face is still best for all parties. Hence, we still do traditional court hearings despite the availability of the video-conferencing platform.
Barrista Solutions: Moving forward, how do you see the profession of the law changing its regular course or structure because of the current pandemic everyone is experiencing?
Atty. Solis: There was a time when new lawyers would apply in the government especially in the Public Attorney’s Office or the Department of Justice just to gain much-needed experience with the end goal of resigning and establishing their private firm in the future. This is not the case anymore. Government lawyers now have competent compensation packages.
This pandemic is a game-changer especially for those in private practice. The lockdown has exposed the financial vulnerabilities of many in the profession who are solo / small firm practitioners. With this, I think a good number of lawyers especially those who just recently passed the bar would vie for government posts.
Barrista Solutions: Do you think there is still a chance that the court processes everyone was accustomed to will eventually return at some point in time? If so, what do you expect from the same?
Atty. Solis: Yes, I still believe that once this pandemic is over, we will go back to our accustomed court processes. However, the changes introduced by the pandemic which are beneficial would probably be adopted.
Barrista Solutions: What are you looking forward to at this time of the new normal as a member of the legal profession?
Atty. Solis: This is not from a legal profession vantage point but my general disposition on this new normal. I want to believe that this pandemic is just a phase orchestrated for us to be more mindful and for us to realize who and what matters most. I would fondly call it the “great reset or equalizer”.
I always hear people say how they wish things would go back to how they used to be. I agree at some point but I prefer to say that I am looking forward to that stage where we experience the greater normal – one where we have empathy not just for other people but also for the government and the system, where our disposition is to help rather than malign because we are all in this together regardless of political beliefs, religion, status or gender. We all are affected, one way or another.
Barrista Solutions: Batch 2019 is the first wave of new lawyers who will be practicing in the time of the new normal. What is your message and advice to them?
Atty. Solis: We are currently facing a global crisis. These are indeed tough times. I can just imagine the anxiety you feel, the many questions you have in your head such as will we ever have an actual oath-taking and roll signing? When can I finally practice and be called a lawyer? Where do I go from here? It seems that right now, you are in a state of limbo in terms of your career. You are there but you are not actually there. Not just yet.
Just be patient. Listen to the wisdom life is teaching you. There are greater things happening outside of your current situation.
This is the best time for you to discern – what type of lawyer do I want to be? What principles as a lawyer would I want to espouse and what office or agency would best fit my principles and not compromise it? Am I for private practice? Try to self-assess and know yourself. Start from there and do little steps towards your desired goal. Throughout all of this, always pray for guidance, and do not forget to be grateful for what you have achieved.
Barrista Solutions: What is your message to your colleagues in the profession of law who are front-liners as well in this time of pandemic?
Atty. Solis: The legal profession is already a stressful environment as it is. Add to that the stressor of adjusting to the new protocols and processes and one can easily be overwhelmed. Always remember that you are not alone. Do not hesitate to ask for help when you feel overburdened with work. Acknowledge when you are not okay and forgive yourself for feeling inadequate. Take time to process things and internalize them. Also, be emphatic and try to help your co-workers as much as you can. We are all in this together. Always be thankful for having a job especially during this pandemic.
Barrista Solutions: What is your final word to all law students trying to survive one day at a time while trapped in the new normal?
Atty. Solis: Acknowledge the fact that you cannot stay motivated all the time. It is simply impossible. But what you can do is to discipline yourself. Set daily reading goals and stick to it. Focus. Adapt. Create a sacred space in your home dedicated to focus and study. In this new way of learning, accept the fact that much of the work would be coming from you.
Your teachers are just there to guide you and make things clearer for you. In your journey of becoming a lawyer, you will be your worst enemy so make sure to take care of yourself – mind, body, spirit, and heart. Lastly, do not forget to pray to your God.
*Atty. Rochelle Marie R. Solis is a graduate of Ateneo de Davao Law School. She passed the bar in 2010. She is currently working as a Clerk of Court V. Before venturing to the frontlines of the judiciary, she served as an Attorney IV for the Commission on Human Rights.