Criminal Law and COVID-19: What Law Firms Need to Know

Throughout North America, prisons, jails and correctional facilities are being thrown into the spotlight for a brand-new reason: COVID-19.

The crowded quarters make these facilities prime breeding grounds for coronavirus to take root and spread. In some cities and counties, COVID-19 has become a literal “get out of jail free” card of sorts for non-violent, short sentence and low-level offenders.

The criminal law profession is also being tasked to adjust on the fly to these new and unprecedented times. This is especially the case concerning new potential criminal cases as the primary goal becomes to contain the greater threat to society that coronavirus represents.

Interestingly, many areas have also seen a drop in crime rather than the spike that was anticipated. As a criminal law firm practicing in pandemic times, read on to learn what you need to know to adapt day by day.

 

Safety First and Then Justice

 

With the whole nation blanketed by a stay at home order, the very top priority right now is safety and health. As such, criminal lawyers and support staff are increasingly moving to remote operations. Use of virtual and video work tools is skyrocketing.

Many firms are dropping to a skeleton crew in office to handle the requirements. Some are switching employees in and out of the office in shifts to help practice safe social distancing protocols.

In the meantime, virtual connectivity tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Skype are becoming increasingly vital for maintaining work flow and client contact.

 

Cybersecurity Concerns Amp Up with a Remote Workforce

 

Even as the majority of global citizens take measures to protect themselves and one another, a newer breed of criminal is rapidly rising through the ranks – coronavirus hackers.

Some such phishing schemes have gained traction as hackers impersonate official agencies such as major medical institutions, the World Health Organization (WHO) and even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Other hackers have found ways to eavesdrop on Zoom meetings and even attack the official COVID-19 tracking map maintained by John Hopkins University.

It is vital to ensure remote workers, whether attorneys or support staff, have a way to securely access the internet and the company intranet if such exists. Partners should instruct staff in what to look for to guard against unwittingly opening malware or falling prey to phishing schemes.

 

Putting a Timeline on Business Not as Usual

 

Right now, it is impossible to say when the threat may truly pass. Some health experts believe it could take a year or longer – certainly several months – before the pandemic is contained and a vaccine becomes widely available.

This means that adapting business operations to accommodate social distancing requirements should be viewed with an eye towards the long-term.

From regular staff meetings to client case updates, the sooner criminal law firms can put new protocols in place, the less time will be lost to reorganization trial and error.

All staff should be encouraged to brainstorm and share ideas for streamlining business operations and boosting productivity while working remotely. Now is not the time for burdensome busywork, but rather for employee empowerment that rewards results.

 

The Changing Face of the Justice System Itself

 

Practicing criminal law in pandemic times means being on the front lines with VIP tickets to sweeping changes as they happen. Reason being, there is now pressure on the entire system to reduce incarcerations to reduce COVID19 cases.

Low-level criminals and offenders with mental health needs are being processed differently now. Similarly, cases that hinge on technical bail or parole violations are now being routinely suspended.

Called “decarceration,” if this trend continues, it may result in a permanent alteration of how law enforcement, first responders, mental health agencies, corrections facilities and the justice system as a whole interact.

While some criminal law firms may worry about a permanent drop in caseloads, the more likely outcome is that new business opportunities will spring up even as relied-upon income streams dry up.

But it will likely be the early adopters, those firms that embrace rather than resist change, who will stand to benefit most from these necessary, non-optional industry-wide changes.

Alex