Covid-Induced Changes in Maine’s Legal Profession Likely a Boon to Clients and Lawyers
– by Avery Day
The legal profession in Maine, like so many other professions, has had to adapt to life with Covid. One of the greatest areas of change that lawyers, clients, and the Courts have seen is the use of technology. While much of the technology embraced over the last year by the legal community is not new, the speed at which it has been adopted by legal professionals and the Courts certainly was. And these changes are a boon to clients as legal services become more efficient and streamlined, saving time and money for all involved.
The Challenge of Covid
In March of 2020, Mainers started to come to grips with Covid and what it meant for how business was transacted. Courts and Registries of Deeds closed to the public. In-person meetings between lawyers and clients stopped or were greatly curtailed. The profession as we knew it was upended. In the proceeding months, however, new procedures were adopted to tackle these challenges and to keep legal matters on track.
Adapting to the Challenge
As in-person meetings became impractical, Maine attorneys adopted new ways of doing business and interacting with their clients. Conference calls became the norm and legal offices adopted the use of videoconferencing services, such as Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet. Of course, some legal matters just could not legally be conducted remotely. For example, the notarization of a deed or a will signing required in-person witnesses and notaries. Stevens & Day attorneys adapted by doing things that would have previously been unheard of, such as holding will signings outdoors. Eventually, Governor Mills signed an Executive Order authorizing remote notarization of documents in Maine via videoconferencing technology.
Although remote notarization has been implemented as an emergency measure in response to the pandemic, it is a tool that could serve the legal profession well after the pandemic has subsided. Through the use of this technology, Stevens & Day attorneys have been able to serve clients who live in remote locations, such as Vinalhaven Island. Older clients who cannot leave their homes due to health issues can have a deed or a will executed from their own home via remote notarization.
The legal profession has also adapted to Registries of Deeds limiting public access to their offices due to the pandemic. Maine Counties have authorized the use of electronic recording of documents for some years but during the pandemic, the value of this service has become more clear. With electronic recording, documents can be transmitted to the Registry and recorded, sometimes in a matter of hours.
Arguably, the largest disruption to the legal profession has been the limited access to the Courts for many legal proceedings. In order to slow the spread of the virus, the Court System has had to limit its in-person proceedings. The past year, however, has been one of innovation to keep the process moving forward. Maine’s District and Superior Courts were on track to transition to an electronic filing system prior to the pandemic. That rollout is continuing and the benefits of such a system have only been made more clear over the past year. The Court System has also authorized the filing of pleadings via e-mail in certain situations; a change that likely never would have been adopted but for the pandemic. In the long term, Maine’s District and Superior Courts will join the Federal Courts, the Bankruptcy Court, the PUC, and the Probate Courts in having an electronic docket, which will result in a more efficient process.
The litigation process itself has also seen a greater use of technology. Stevens & Day attorneys now regularly participate in depositions via videoconferencing to keep their cases progressing. Just one year ago, a remote deposition was extremely uncommon in Maine. Today, it is becoming the norm, and clients, witnesses, and attorneys can avoid the time and expense of all traveling to the same physical location.
Perhaps, the biggest change by the Court System has been the use of remote proceedings to conduct its business. In addition to holding telephonic conferences, which was common before the pandemic, Maine’s Courts are now conducting remote mediations and hearings. Initially, appearing before a judge via Zoom was unusual. Now it is the norm for many case types and appears to be working well. Moreover, this innovation has benefitted clients, as these remote hearings avoid the time and expense of traveling to Courts throughout the State to appear before judges in-person.
Prepared to Meet the Challenge
Stevens & Day was well-positioned to adopt the use of new technologies in response to Covid. The firm’s approach to having a “paperless” office meant that all files were electronic and available to our attorneys practicing remotely. Moreover, the systems and software at the firm made for a smooth transition to remote working.
Like our attorneys, our clients are adapting to new ways of accessing legal services and many are finding that there are benefits to the innovations that Covid has forced the legal profession to adopt. We are all looking forward to getting back to “normal” but normal should continue and expand upon the use of technology to deliver legal services more efficiently.