As coronavirus continues to rapidly spread, stay at home orders are being issued in the United States. These orders close all “non-essential” businesses in an attempt to eliminate avenues of viral transmission. But are lawyers considered essential workers?
Most states are following the recommendations of the US federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in identifying what counts as the critical infrastructure sectors and the essential workers needed to maintain the services and functions across America. Access to lawyers and legal services is not considered essential by CISA, even though financial services are.
However, several states have taken their own approach on whether lawyers provide essential or non-essential services. Being an essential business means that your physical locations can remain open, and that employees may travel to and from the office. Working remotely is still recommended for essential businesses, but it may not be required.
Can your law office stay open? Look to the chart below to see if your state has deemed lawyers as essential services. Note: This chart covers only states for which a stay at home order or similar has been issued.
Last updated: March 27, 2020
|State||Date Effective||Legal: Essential / Nonessential||Language|
|Alaska||March 22||Essential*||*”Professional services, such as legal or accounting services, when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities”|
|California||March 19||Essential*||*”when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities and critical sector services”|
|Connecticut||March 23 at 8 p.m.||Essential|
|Delaware||March 24 at 8 a.m.||Essential|
|Hawaii||March 25 at 12:01 a.m.||Essential||“Professional services, such as legal services, accounting services, insurance services, real estate services (including appraisal and title services)”|
|Illinois||March 21 at 5 p.m.||Essential||“Professional services” but legal is not specifically identified.|
|Indiana||March 24 at 11:59 p.m.||Essential||“Professional services, such as legal services, accounting services, insurance services, and real estate services (including appraisal and title services).”|
|Louisiana||March 23 at 5 p.m.||Non-essential|
|Massachusetts||March 24 at 12 p.m.||Essential*||*”Professional services (such as legal and accounting services) and payroll and employee benefit services, when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities and critical sector services or where failure to provide such services during the time of the order would result in significant prejudice”|
|Michigan||March 24 at 12:01 a.m.||Non-essential*||*Sec. 7(a)(10) does include an exemption to the stay at home order “To attend legal proceedings or hearings for essential or emergency purposes as ordered by a court.”|
|New Jersey||March 21 at 9 p.m.||Non-essential|
|New Mexico||March 24 at 8 a.m.||Essential*||*”Professional services, such as legal or accounting services, but only where necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities;”|
|New York||March 22 at 8 p.m.||Non-essential*||*Solo firms may be exempt. “Any business that only has a single occupant/employee (i.e. gas station) has been deemed exempt and need not submit a request to be designated as an essential business.”|
|Ohio||March 23 at 11:59 pm.||Essential||“Professional services, such as legal services, accounting services, insurance services, real estate services (including appraisal and title services)”|
|Oregon||March 23||Not Applicable|
|Pennsylvania||March 23 at 8 p.m.||Non-essential|
|Washington||March 23||Essential*||*”Professional services, such as legal or accounting and tax preparation services, when necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities and critical sector services”|
|West Virginia||March 24 at 8 p.m.||Essential||“Professional services, such as legal services, accounting services, insurance services, real estate services (including appraisal and title services).”|
In total, 18 states have enacted stay at home orders so far. Of those states, lawyers are not considered essential workers in 5 states. And, for several states on the list, lawyers are only considered essential services for specific circumstances.
What Should You Do?
If a stay at home order has been issued, and law firms are essential businesses in your state
In this case, we still strongly recommend working remotely if you can to keep your clients, employees, and families safe. More and more states are issuing such orders, so if you’re still technically required to stay open, we recommend treating this as a bit of extra time to transition your firm to remote operations.
Our guide to working remotely as a lawyer has the information you need to help your firm transition to remote work.
If you absolutely need to stay open, limit in-office interactions to ones where you’re legally required to meet in person, and follow this Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If a stay at home order has been issued, and legal services are not considered an essential service in your state
Here, you may need to act quickly. Do not violate a stay at home order, but collect essential equipment you’ll need from your office if you are able (your computer, including your keyboard and mouse, and any essential files) so that you can prepare to transition your office to a virtual one from home.
We recommend seeking out guidance on how this order impacts your ethical obligations to clients as soon as possible—especially if you’re in a position. Where you can’t transition your practice online quickly.
You should also inform your clients that your firm has been impacted by the stay at home order and inform them what changes to expect in services: Even if you haven’t figured what those changes will be yet, letting your clients know that you’re aware of the stay at home order, are seeking out guidance, and will update them shortly on next steps will provide peace of mind and allow you to focus on making appropriate transitions for your business.
If your state doesn’t appear on this chart
We recommend preparing to work remotely as soon as possible whether legal services are classified as an essential service in your state, and whether your state has issued a stay at home order, or not. With the current trend being towards asking more and more people to stay at home, being prepared is the prudent approach for you, your business, and your clients.
There are plenty of resources available to help your firm work from home. However, this shouldn’t be overwhelming. Your work-from-home setup doesn’t need to be perfect out of the gate—focus on ensuring you have access to case details, knowing how your clients will contact you, and knowing how lawyers and staff will collaborate, and improve things in small ways from there.
Most importantly, if you’re unsure of how to legally or ethically handle a challenge resulting from a stay at home order (for example, you’re not an essential service, but an in-person signature is needed in a timely manner), seek out as much guidance as possible, and think carefully through the process you’ll use to get around this. Be clear on your thinking about why you believe this approach made the most sense under the law should you be asked to justify this at a later time (for example, if you witness signings via video and courier documents).