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NOTHING BUT THE RUTH!

COVID-19 in the Office: Staying Safe While Practicing Law

By Ruth Carter

Recommendations to help avoid catching or transmitting COVID-19 in the office.

Last fall, Dr. Terry Simpson gave us his recommendations for how to stay safe during cold and flu season. (Doesn’t that seem like forever ago?) I reached back out to him for advice on our current situation. Specifically, how can lawyers stay safe while they continue to practice law and go to the office? Thankfully, he had a few minutes to respond to some rapid-fire questions about what lawyers should be doing to protect themselves during COVID-19.

When I’m sitting in my office at the firm, I’m more than 6 feet away from my officemates. Should I still wear a mask?

Dr. Terry Simpson: Yes, because they will walk by you, and while 6 feet protects people somewhat, it is enhanced with a mask.

Should I keep my personal office door closed at all times?

TS: Probably. It depends on the ventilation system. I work in an older building, so I leave the door open and wear a mask.

Along these same lines, here’s a question from a friend: “My boss phoned me the other day because I showed up on a Zoom call without a mask, and it is corporate policy to wear one while in the office. Their thinking is that even though I have a private office with the door closed, anyone could walk in and pick up something from my desk or leave something for me and there would be exposure. What do you think?

TS: People need to wear a mask at all times when they’re not at home except when eating or drinking.

Lawyers tend to work until they die. Is there a particular age group who should work from home because they’re assumed to be at greater risk even if their younger co-workers can be in the office?

TS: If you are 65 or older, you should work from home.

Should clients be coming into the office to meet with lawyers?

TS: From my experience, very little needs to be done in person when lawyers are working with clients. Limiting the number of people coming to your office lowers the chance of the virus spreading.

When lawyers take a deposition, it usually takes place in a conference room with multiple lawyers, the person being deposed and the stenographer. Is it safe to conduct depositions if everyone is wearing a mask and there’s at least 6 feet between people?

TS: Why can’t they do it with Zoom? That many people in close proximity isn’t safe.

(Note: I kicked the question out on several of my social media accounts, and yes, many lawyers are taking depositions this way and report positive experiences.)

Let’s talk about law firms located in bigger office buildings. What questions should lawyers ask managers or landlords about their offices before they return? Air circulation? Physical distancing requirements? Plastic guards?

TS: They definitely want to ask about air scrubbers and other quality issues like mask requirements.

What other precautions or protective measures should lawyers be taking to avoid catching or transmitting COVID-19?

TS: Believe everyone is infected. Sometimes we get comfortable with people we work with, and I think we need to think about them as potentially infected. One of my fellow employees recently became sick with COVID-19. Thankfully, the rest of her family is negative. She has no idea where she was exposed. It could have been at the grocery store, it could have been anywhere.

As a result, I keep my mask on while in the office. I assume my fellow officemates are infected.

In many ways, COVID-19 in the office reminds me of the early days of HIV. We didn’t have a cure or even treatment for this virus back then, but we did have mitigation with condoms and we adopted the motto “no glove, no love” to encourage people to protect themselves and others.

We are social people, and we want to be around one another. We need to be better with masks, with indoor air quality systems, and be careful in general.

We know that the more virus you get, the worse your outcome will be. If someone with COVID-19 sneezes near you and they are not wearing a mask, you will get a higher viral load than if they wore a mask.

I hope we have a better answer soon for this disease, but wearing a mask is the most empowering thing you can do for now.

So please, wear masks — it isn’t that difficult. I wear one every single day — and my oxygen level is fine, I don’t get carbon dioxide poisoning, and I am not breathing toxins.

Covid-19 in the Office Takeaway: My Mask Stays On, 6 Feet or Not

So, now I’m sitting in my office with my door closed and a mask on my face, trying to figure out the best way to wear my mask so I don’t fog up my glasses. I honestly thought I was safe to take my mask off as long as I was at least 6 feet away from my officemates.

For now, I do most of my client meetings by phone or videoconference. I’ll admit, though, that I had a client in my office the other week because we had a telephonic hearing, and I impulsively gave her a quiet high-five when the judge ruled in our favor. The moment I touched her hand I thought, “Bah! I shouldn’t have done that,” and I washed my hands as soon as the hearing was over.

Lawyers have always been considered “essential” in Arizona, where I am. So I’ve been coming to the office most days since the beginning of the pandemic, though I always have the option to work from home. (Other law firms have taken a more aggressive approach and require everyone to work from home.) It’s only after this interview with Dr. Simpson that it’s been hammered home that I have to keep my mask on all the time if I’m not home, eating or drinking — 6 feet away from others or not. (And Dr. Simpson says it’s OK to take off your mask when driving if you’re alone or only with people you live with.)

The American Bar Association’s COVID-19 Task Force webpage includes updated resources and information for lawyers.

Image ©imagezoo.com

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Ruth B. Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at UndeniableRuth.com and tweets @rbcarter.

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