From the Multnomah Lawyer: An Unexpected Journey: Navigating the Road with the PLF
“It’s dangerous business...going out your front door.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
I’ve thought about that quote a lot over the past month. This brave new world we are all learning to navigate does seem more dangerous and more uncertain than any time I can recall. In the space of a few short weeks, we have all been forced to reimagine how we live our lives – from buying groceries to interacting with our friends and neighbors to (re)learning how to work remotely. I’ve been at the Professional Liability Fund (PLF) nearly 10 years now, and during that time I had found a rhythm to my work - how I organize my day, how I connect with my colleagues, when I answer phone calls, and so on. On March 16, that all changed. Suddenly, I, like many of you, had to quickly figure out how I was going to shift all of those patterns from my office in Tigard to my home in Southeast Portland.
As I write this article, I have been working from home for five weeks - along with the entire staff of the PLF. In that time, I’ve seen the still life images of children and spouses sitting framed on a colleague’s desk come alive during video meetings, and the once-static cuddly images of beloved pets now provide a colorful soundtrack to group meetings.
Along with the challenges of moving all my work online, there are these splashes of color, of reality, that have – perhaps unexpectedly - made me feel closer and more connected to my colleagues than I did when we were a few offices apart.
The work we do at the PLF is focused on Oregon lawyers. From handling claims to providing practice management assistance - we are always aware of the unique role the PLF plays in this legal community. As part of this article, I thought I would spend some time with my colleagues in different departments of the PLF to see how they see this COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Oregon lawyers.
Shari Pearlman, Assistant Director/Attorney Counselor, Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP)
When I connected with Shari Pearlman at the OAAP, it was one of those perfect spring days outside, and she was talking with me from her porch. She noted that in the first few weeks of the shelter-in-place order, the phones at the OAAP were quieter than normal. She thought this was likely because everyone was busy trying to figure out their work-from-home plans and beginning to orient themselves in this new reality. After this initial period, though, the phones did start to ring again in earnest.
Shari reflected that, even during this time, the attorneys she and her colleagues are working with are concerned about familiar issues like anxiety and stress. But those issues are manifesting differently than in ordinary times because so much of the anxiety today stems from uncertainty and unknowns - stress related to finances, worry for the future, concern for staff. Still, in spite of all of these concerns, Shari described a budding resiliency. People seem to be open to being more personal now and sharing more. Perhaps it is because we are not all at our desks in our suits, she mused. There is a rawness to these less-polished interactions that, she thinks, could positively impact the legal community socially and professionally in ways we haven’t yet imagined. Unexpected silver linings.
Before we got off our call, I asked Shari what other things the OAAP was working on to help Oregon lawyers during this time. She said there are ongoing groups and recovery meetings taking place all the time - via video and phone conferencing, of course! The attorney counselors were excited to develop and launch a new blog, Thriving Today
(www.oaap.org/thriving-today), that is focused on sharing resources to enhance well-being. And, as always, the OAAP is available as a resource to Oregon lawyers - so please call!
Madeleine Campbell, PLF Director of Claims
Madeleine Campbell and I connected through a video meeting to chat about what was happening in the PLF Claims Department. The first thing she wanted me to share was that the PLF is open, and the claims department, though working remotely, is still fully operational and handling claims against Oregon lawyers as normal.
Madeleine also noted that the first few weeks of the shelter-in-place order saw a drop in telephone calls to the claims department. That call volume, though, has picked back up in the past several weeks.
I asked if there were any reflections she could share that might help lawyers during this time. Her advice was to really think about communication. Consider how you as the lawyer can best be reached, and be sure that your clients are aware of how to reach you. Now is also likely a great time to check in with clients you may not have heard from in a while. Also, she recommended that lawyers pay especially close attention to documents - particularly those with e-signatures - to make sure that the documents being finalized and sent out are indeed the final version. Since most everything is being done electronically, and remotely, it could potentially be more difficult to track document versions, so keeping a careful eye is important.
Like Shari, Madeleine did see some silver linings that may come out of this time. The claims department has moved forward with some administrative efficiencies that will likely stay in place even after this pandemic is over. For example, the PLF website now has a way for lawyers to self-report potential claims. This feature had been contemplated for a while, and with the sudden shift to working from home last month, the time seemed right to move forward.
Rachel Edwards, PLF Practice Management Attorney (PMA)
When I caught up with Rachel Edwards for this article, she began with a now familiar story. During the first week or so of the shelter-in-place order, things were pretty quiet. By the second week, however, calls and emails picked up. Rachel noted that in the first several weeks, many attorneys were contacting her to discuss office systems and other topics related to remote work. Remote working strategies and best practices were such a hot topic that Rachel and Hong Dao, another PMA, gave a webinar on tips and strategies for working from home. They covered practical issues like video conferencing and remote connections, and gave advice on how best to set up your home office (hint: make it as much like your work office as possible, and lighting is key!).
If there was a silver lining for Rachel, it might be that the lawyers contacting her seem to be more cautious, more reflective. Perhaps it is the broader uncertainty in the world, but it seems that some of that uncertainty is manifesting in a willingness to pick up the phone and ask a question. In the hustle of our pre-pandemic world, those pauses maybe seemed like an unwelcome distraction. There is more time now. Time to take a moment and, perhaps, if there isn’t a clear answer, our natural instinct to pick up the phone and connect with someone who could point out a resource is exactly the right thing. We all need support from time to time. Rachel is glad she can be that kind of resource at the PLF.
Nena Cook, PLF Chief Executive Officer
When I spoke with Nena Cook, she was finishing up a walk where she was listening to the PMAs’ webinar on tips for working from home. She was excited about the information the PMAs were sharing and glad that the PLF was focused on figuring out different ways to serve Oregon lawyers during this time.
Nena started her tenure at the PLF in January of this year, and she hit the ground running. No one could have predicted that three months into 2020 we would be faced with a global pandemic. Lawyers have certainly not escaped the sudden shift in the workflow and economy these past few weeks. With these dramatic changes have come some important questions for the PLF that have never been asked before. Those questions landed right on Nena’s desk.
In late March, Nena received a few inquiries about the upcoming PLF assessment second installment deadline on April 10. Lawyers were concerned about their ability to pay while continuing to practice. Over a few days, the calls and emails increased, and Nena set to work marshaling the PLF managers and Board of Directors to look into possible solutions. Normally, changes cannot be made to the PLF installment amounts or deadlines without approval of the PLF Board of Directors and the OSB Board of governors - a process that can take some time. With the payment deadline less than two weeks away, it seemed a stretch to pull together an approval before the deadline.
Nena said this question was really forefront on her mind. So one morning she woke up early and decided to read through the PLF Bylaws and Policies to see if there was anything in there that could help. That early morning reading led her to a provision that gives the PLF CEO the authority to “take reasonable and necessary actions, including extending deadlines and suspending late fees, if national or statewide events occur that severely disrupt the normal course of business.” As best we can tell, this policy has never been utilized before, but our Board quickly agreed that the CEO did have the ability to modify the assessment deadline during this time.
That day, Nena announced an extension of the April 10 payment deadline by 60 days without charging any late fees and still allowing lawyers to continue to take advantage of the installment plan if the full amount of the second installment is paid on or before June 10.
We obviously do not know what will happen in the days and weeks ahead, and the PLF cannot promise any other changes to our assessment in the future. With this in mind, though, Nena said that figuring out a way to help Oregon lawyers right now, even in this small way, felt like a huge win. When I asked her what she would like to remind lawyers about the PLF, she said that we are here and we are responsive. Whether that’s assistance with coverage questions, potential claims, practice management issues, or OAAP counseling - the PLF is here to help.
I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing their reflections, and I hope you found them valuable. I’ve always been proud to work at the PLF because, as I think you can glean from this article, we place a great deal of focus on ways we can help Oregon lawyers.
As I am writing this in April, it does still feel like dangerous business to go out my front door. Within that wider world, though, we are also experiencing pockets of safety and community that, over distance, are bringing us closer together. We’ve had to figure it all out quite quickly. There hasn’t been much time to pause and catch our breath. We are all simply trying to do our best. I will conclude with another offering from Tolkien that, to me, so aptly captures how I feel in this moment.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
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