Maintaining An Estate Practice in the Time of COVID-19


At the outset of this article, I acknowledge that my experience with this pandemic will be different from many of yours. I work in a firm of 259 people, 95 of whom are lawyers. We work in Vancouver and we primarily file in the Vancouver Registry. I have the benefit of a team of senior management whose roles are dedicated to tasks other than delivering legal services to clients, a luxury that not all firms or solo practitioners will have. In the article, I have tried to distill some key aspects of the firm’s and my own experience with the transition to working remotely from home. I am hopeful that some of those aspects will be helpful to all readers, regardless of the size of your firm or practice, and regardless of where you practice in the province.

When Candace Cho asked me to write about maintaining my estate and trust practice during this pandemic, I was less than 48 hours into it. My family and I had left early for Spring Break, and we were already travelling when Dr. Henry recommended against non-essential travel. We did cut our trip short, but my first day “back to work” was March 23.

I was extremely fortunate that the management team at my firm had managed to transition almost the entire firm to remote by the time I returned. We had two people at the office on shortened hours to send and receive packages, one member of the systems team to troubleshoot technology issues, and from time to time, a member of our accounting team. All of our lawyers, paralegals, students, accounting team, word processing, marketing, human resources, and systems are able to carry on ‘business as usual’ remotely, as are the majority of our legal assistants. For me, the transition was fairly painless. I attribute this to the strength and foresight of our management team, as well as two of our firm’s four core values: trust and teamwork. I also attribute my easy transition to the fact that my children are 12 and 14 and are able to amuse themselves for large parts of the day.

While the transition to working remotely was fairly seamless, there are some differences in our ‘new normal’, some of which are positive and some of which are challenges.

Key factors leading to the ease of this transition include:

  1. Business Continuity Plan: by good fortune, we had just refreshed our BCP. To create the BCP, our management team brainstorms solutions to various potential catastrophic events, from earthquake, to a burst pipe in our computer server room, to the unexpected incapacity of a key firm member, and, fortunately, even a pandemic. The brainstorming results in a step by step plan of the tools we need in place to ensure we can continue to operate through the event. The management team documents the steps, and ensures we have sufficient resources in place. For example, planning identified a need to be able to notify all firm members quickly. We therefore recently obtained a program that allows management to notify all firm members via text should we need to push a message out to everyone on an urgent basis.
  2. Snowstorm in January: as some of you may recall, this past January Vancouver was hit by an unusually significant snowfall. Transit was significantly delayed or unavailable, and the roads were treacherous. Many of our firm members worked from home – so many in fact, that we did not have sufficient remote work licences available during peak times. As a result, through January and February, we increased the number of licences, and did so again in the first part of March. The vast majority of our firm is now able to work remotely, logging onto our work system securely from our homes, with the same access and capabilities as we have at the office. While I personally found the snow extremely inconvenient – I was in Chambers on two different matters that week – it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
  3. Computer Equipment: one area that had not been fully planned in our BCP was ensuring we all had adequate home computer equipment. In early March, our systems team purchased a number of laptops for this purpose, and worked with firm members to ensure we all have adequate equipment – including taking monitors and keyboards from our offices to use at home.

While the transition to working remotely was fairly seamless, there are some differences in our ‘new normal’, some of which are positive and some of which are challenges.

  1. Isolation: the biggest difference for me is that I miss seeing the people I work with. We are trying to address that lack of personal connection through videoconferences and phone calls to discuss files or other matters, or just to check in. We have videoconference practice group meetings, partners meetings, and associates meet-ings. We have transitioned our weekly Friday at 4:30 firm get together from in person in our lounge to a videoconference. All firm members are invited, and there is typically a theme and a host (as well as some laughs and camaraderie). We also have informal groups of co-workers who “have lunch” together or an end of the day chat by videoconference. We have daily check in emails from our MP, COO, and Department Chairs. HR checks in with our staff and lawyers daily. We are reaching out to clients and contacts by telephone, email, and videoconference, to maintain those connections as well. The biggest difference for me is that I miss seeing the people I work with.
  2. Technology: as I discuss further below, one of the positive outcomes we will see from this pandemic is increased integration of technology into all aspects of the legal system. At present, for me, this is evident in my newly acquired secure digital signature through
    Adobe. I have been signing pleadings and letters with this, and plan to continue to do so even once I am back at the office. It is also evident in the move away from in-person presentations to presentations via videoconferencing. This is a trend we have been seeing even prior to COVID-19, and obviously we need to use videoconferencing while there is a risk of transmission from in-person attendance. However, this is one technology that I hope will not become more ingrained. It is my view that in-person attendance at seminars provides more than just a learning opportunity. It fosters a sense of community at the bar, and helps build connections between lawyers that will increase the likelihood those lawyers can work cooperatively towards solutions for their respective clients. I realize this view is not shared by all lawyers, but it is in keeping with the way I run my practice. I also acknowledge that many in-person seminars take place in Vancouver, making it expensive and time consuming for lawyers from other areas of the province to attend in person.
  3. Cybersecurity: remote access means we are now accessing our work system on equipment not maintained by the firm. Our systems team is working with our firm members to ensure all home computers have appropriate security measures in place. Our systems team is also reminding us that cyber criminals are increasing their efforts during the pandemic, and that we must remain vigilant. All firm members receive tips from our systems team to help us avoid traps for the unwary.
  4. Court Closure: the closure of the BC Supreme Court affects my practice. I have matters that are pressing and vitally important to my clients, but which do not meet the requirements for an urgent hearing. I am also concerned that the backlog of hearings once the Courts do re-open will be so significant that matters are delayed for many months.
  5. Billing: our first billing cycle while working remotely is now upon us. Billing is typically a paper-intensive process, with hardcopy pre-bills, written approvals, preparation of hardcopy accounts for signature, and scanning into our accounting and client files. For this cycle, we will be moving some of these steps to an electronic, paperless format, although the details are still being worked on by management and our accounting team. We expect the paperless format to be more efficient than our current process, once we become more familiar with the new steps, and plan to continue paperless billing going forward.

In terms of our estate and trust practice, we have noted the following:

  1. Estate Planning: we have seen an increase in interest in estate planning. While the majority of our inquiries are clients looking to update or create an estate plan simply as a precaution, we have also had inquiries for patients en route to or at the hospital. Most of the communication is through telephone, email, and videoconferencing. Many clients are able to have documents witnessed by lay persons instead of in-person signings with our lawyers. In such cases, we provide detailed directions for execution and may also include an explanatory clause in the document confirming that it was executed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the client requires documents to be witnessed by us, our lawyers are witnessing the execution while maintaining physical distance, sometimes remaining outside and observing through an open window. Where there are no witnesses available, we include wording in the document itself to indicate the documents were signed during the COVID-19 pandemic, that it was unsafe to have witnesses, but that the documents express the donor’s true intentions (we expect that this wording will be helpful to the Court should a s. 58 application under WESA be required for a Will that is not witnessed).
  2. Court Services Online: We have not experienced any disruption in our ability to file through CSO. Some documents are not available from CSO, but the process of requesting copies electronically is simple. For example, we could see the date and filing parties for two Notices of Dispute on the same estate, but only one of the Notices was available for download on CSO. We were however able to obtain the second Notice through an email exchange with the Vancouver Registry.
  3. Video Examinations for Discovery: While we have yet to conduct an examination for discovery via videoconference due to the virus, I have previously done so. We regularly see witness attendance at trial by videoconference. Given the stability and video quality on the programs in use today, I do not anticipate difficulties with video examinations.

Is it too early to make predictions for how practice will change as a result of this social isolation? Probably. However, one prediction I will go on the record for is an increase of law firm employees working from home. In many law firms, there has been resistance to having lawyers or staff work from home. The main concerns I have heard expressed are that the other lawyers need that person in the office if they have a task or assignment for them, and that having people work from home is too inefficient. Given that we are seeing our practices continue to run while many of us are at our homes answers these concerns. I expect that we will see more people working remotely, which would be positive for parents with childcare responsibilities, for those with elderly parents or others to care for, and for those who wish to live in more affordable real estate markets. If we do see a trend of more people working remotely part or full time, then I expect we will also see some firms reducing their office space accordingly. The key takeaway so far is that the legal profession as a whole needs to more fully embrace technology.

The key takeaway so far is that the legal profession as a whole needs to more fully embrace technology. The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin wrote a powerful article for The Lawyer’s Daily, published March 31, 2020. In it, the former Chief Justice of Canada called upon government to improve the efficiencies and timeliness of the court process. She also urged those within the legal profession to keep a record of the “difficult lessons” we are each learning. This is sound advice, in my view, and I urge you to note difficulties you are encountering and any potential solutions to those difficulties. When we come through this pandemic (and we will), an organization like the TLABC is perfectly positioned to gather our collective wisdom, and to advocate to the government to effect real change.

This article was originally published in TLABC’s The Verdict.