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.
Jeffrey R. Hall is a founding member at Hall, Rustom & Fritz LLC in Peoria, Ill. His primary practice areas include criminal law, DUI/traffic, driver’s license reinstatements, FOID reinstatements, and criminal record expungements.
How is your firm adapting to the changing work environment?
At Hall, Rustom & Fritz LLC, we have made substantial changes to how we represent and interact with clients. Prior to the COVID shutdowns in March 2020, we had — over 5 years — been moving to a more digital approach to representation. We communicate regularly using secure email with our clients, not by sending physical letters via USPS, but by sending digital copies. And, if signatures are required, we utilize e-signature software by Adobe Sign.
That way, clients do not have to touch paperwork that our office has handled and they can still execute documents if needed. We can consult remotely via Zoom with potential clients but also observe social distancing rules if the client wishes to meet with us in person.
We have also been actively supporting judges in Central Illinois who promote remote court proceedings over Zoom. My associate attorney and I have been able to resolve cases much more efficiently in greater numbers with remote plea hearings via Zoom.
With 90% participation for some courts, this will keep arrest warrants from being issued and prevent people from being arrested from their jobs or taken to jail (leaving children behind) because they did not appear for a traffic case, and it will encourage more participation to resolve cases efficiently.
We found this also allows the client more time to digest the resolution, understand its consequences, and fully accept the outcome of their case. When compared to in-court resolutions, time is limited to speak with the clients, and many times deals are struck at the last minute, so a client may not feel as comfortable or understand what is happening.
With remote Zoom hearings, they can participate, have time to review everything we send to them in advance, and understand what is happening. This is a big deal, to be honest.
What challenges do attorneys face in navigating COVID-19?
The challenge recently is the uncertainty of whether or not a client will have their jury trial. Why would a criminal defendant want to be judged by people who are at risk of contracting COVID by merely sitting in the courtroom to hear a trial? Would they resent our client, a defendant charged with committing a crime, who is forcing them to sit in a closed courtroom? This is big for a client and prosecutors may take advantage of knowing this could be a variable for a juror when deciding on a verdict after a jury trial.
How do you maintain civility during stressful situations?
I try to find outlets to release stress, but many times it’s hard. We have stressful jobs trying to mitigate and manage the stresses of our clients and I definitely need time not only to myself but with my family.
Many of these cases require attention to detail and stress can affect the representation [of] and even simple interactions with clients. I try to calm myself before responding in anger or I get feedback from my law partners or my assistant.
What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?
There will be long-term positive impacts as well as long-term negative impacts.
On the positive side, if we can perfect remote resolutions and court hearings for non-essential cases, then illnesses contracted at court when in public will decrease while participation in criminal/traffic proceedings will increase because a person can appear before the judge from the comfort of their own home. They can save money on childcare and not risk losing their job to appear in court or miss work. Defendants will have digital copies of their plea paperwork so they can refer to it on-demand, rather than losing their court paperwork and then giving up trying to figure out what is required of them to do.
As for negative impacts, there will be less social interaction with attorneys, judges, etc., and that can have uncertain impacts on relationships; but that remains to be seen in my experience. COVID-19 can also affect the mental health and well-being of attorneys and judges. Attorneys have stressful jobs and many resort to substance addiction to cope with the stresses.
How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?
I have been fortunate in my career that I have control over my schedule. I can work from home unless a judge and prosecutor require me to be [in court]. I can spend more time with my two daughters (6 and 1 year old), I can help more around the house, and be more involved as a father and husband rather than always being away at court, in hearings, or at the office working and meeting with clients who could put me at risk of contracting COVID.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Jeffrey R. Hall here.