Our Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives. These attorneys are teaching us how to adapt and thrive in the changing legal environment.
Steve Beckett is an attorney in Urbana, Illinois and serves as of counsel to his former law firm, now known as Beckett Law Office PC. He has been practicing law since 1973 in Champaign County and has appeared in state and federal trial and appellate courts in both criminal and civil cases, including twice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
How is your firm adapting to the changing work environment?
We were pretty much shut down working from home from March 15 to June 15. Courthouses were closed and client contact was by telephone and virtual appointments. After the courthouses opened up and we came back to work in the office, we added restrictions on attorneys and staff.
Everyone wears a mask when not in his or her office space; the office is locked and “must-see” appointments require a phone call to open the door. Personal appointments are in conference rooms with masks and social distances.
Any staff member that reports any sort of contact tracing event for COVID 19 is quarantined and must work from home. Test results (negative) are required to return to the office at the end of the quarantine. Most appointments with clients are now virtual appointments.
Court proceedings are required at the various courthouses, which also require masks and social distancing. I began a jury trial with jury selection in the jury assembly area (again with masks and social distancing) but the case settled so I did not have the experience of a COVID-19 trial.
What challenges do attorneys face in navigating COVID-19?
The biggest difference is the interaction with people. Everyone is on edge a bit, so you need to have the client be comfortable. I think sharing the experience with them helps.
I find myself writing lengthy emails about what is going to happen in court on a step-by-step basis. In the past, this would be all verbal, but personal time together seems limited and virtual meetings are not a substitute for the trust and confidence that comes from a personal meeting with a client.
How do you maintain civility during stressful situations?
I think the older I get the more I appreciate civility and try to be an example in dealing with opposing counsel. I try to find out how the other attorney and his or her family are handling the pandemic. I think empathy about each person, whether it is an attorney or client or opposing party, is the course to follow these days.
That we are all facing this together is a good theme for all of us, and when we stress on the other side of the case, we need to recognize it and be calm.
What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?
I think virtual meetings and certain virtual court hearings are here to stay. They’ve shown themselves to be efficient and easy to set up. They are better than conference calls because you see each other and can even share documents with particular virtual applications. This is probably good for case management reasons, but I hate to lose the human element we all share when we have in-person activity.
How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?
Obviously, I have spent much more time at home with my wife, and our out of home activities are limited. I am working more from home than I have ever done. But I think overall the importance of family and family safety during the pandemic has become a major factor in life now. It isn’t that it wasn’t important before, but the pandemic shows that we sometimes take family and friends for granted. I have lost dear friends and the inability to grieve is a great stressor in my life right now.
I’ve been practicing law for 47 years, and enjoy helping people on an everyday basis. I retired from law school faculty and try to use social media to keep track of former students – I’m very proud of the professionals they’ve become and love to see their growing families. Nonetheless, I miss all of the things we all like to do, theater, concerts, sporting events, alumni events, church… you can go on and on. I keep myself in a hopeful mood as best I can. I think we all are trying to do this.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like J. Steven Beckett here.