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.
Sari Montgomery is a partner at Robinson, Stewart, Montgomery & Doppke LLC, where she focuses on legal ethics and professional responsibility matters. Sari formerly worked for the ARDC, but now represent lawyers in ARDC matters, judges in JIB matters, and bar applicants in Character and Fitness proceedings. She also consults with and provides opinion letters to lawyers, firms, government agencies, and law-related businesses on legal ethics matters in many different practice settings.
How is your firm adapting to the changing work environment?
We have mostly been working remotely since March. For the most part, it has been a fairly smooth transition as we already had the technology in place to work from home when we needed to, although we did need to purchase some additional equipment. I think we all miss the collegiality of seeing each other on a daily basis, so we try to have firm meetings via Zoom somewhat regularly so we can stay connected.
What challenges do attorneys in legal ethics and professional responsibility face in navigating COVID-19?
I think the lack of in-person contact with our clients is the biggest challenge. As you can imagine, being involved in the disciplinary system is extremely stressful. The stakes are high and we sometimes have to discuss very personal and emotional issues with our clients. Interacting on the phone or by video can be very impersonal and can make it harder to have a good connection and build trust with clients.
In addition, all ARDC and Character and Fitness proceedings have generally been held remotely since the summer. While there have been some advantages to this in that it makes it easier to bring in witness testimony, it is difficult not to be able to sit right next to your client during these stressful proceedings. I also wonder about the impact of the hearing officers not being able to observe the testimony in person, particularly that of the lawyer or bar applicant, when so much is at stake. There have also been instances where the technology does not work properly and not everyone can see each other, which is a bit disconcerting.
How do you maintain civility in your practice during stressful situations?
Throughout my career, I have always done my best to maintain the highest levels of professionalism and civility, even in the most stressful situations. One of the most important lessons I learned in law school, which I also emphasized to my students years later when I returned to teach at Loyola Law School, is that your reputation is your most valuable asset.
You are much more likely to get cooperation from a client, court, or opposing counsel if you are known for being professional and civil, especially in stressful situations, which will ultimately benefit your client. You also never know when you will cross paths in the future with the lawyers, judges, clients, and others with whom you interact. They could hold the keys to your next opportunity, or know the person who does.
It is always to your advantage to be known for being respectful and civil, and never to your advantage to be known for being rude or difficult to work with. To that end, I always listen carefully to try to identify the ultimate issue and where we can find common ground. I also make it a practice to read and re-read my email for tone as well as content before I hit send, and take a deep breath and make a plan before picking up the phone or going into a meeting when I know I’m about to have a difficult conversation.
In addition, whether during these extraordinary and often stressful times, or under normal circumstances, I think we just need to constantly remind ourselves that we don’t know what the people with whom we are interacting are dealing with. They may have a sick relative or friend, or their child’s e-learning may not be going well, or they might just be having a bad day, so I always try to give the benefit of the doubt and be kind and professional.
What long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on the legal profession?
It’s really too early to tell. At a minimum, it has definitely sped up certain aspects of making courts more easily accessible. By not requiring in-person appearances for status calls or minor issues, clients don’t need to take time off from work, pay their lawyer to travel to and from court, or pay their lawyer to wait around until the case is called. These are all positive changes that probably would have happened eventually, but were expedited out of necessity.
I think we’ve also seen that lawyers can be flexible and don’t necessarily need as much expensive physical office infrastructure as we have traditionally seen, not just in terms of physical space, but also in terms of digitizing the practice. These efficiencies can translate to lower fees for clients, greater profitability for lawyers, and lawyers becoming much more accessible through online availability.
I also think it will be interesting to see the impact the pandemic will have on traditional concepts of multijurisdictional practice. Historically, the ethics rules have placed great emphasis on lawyers being limited to practicing in jurisdictions where they are physically located and licensed. What COVID-19 has shown us is that, in many instances, lawyers are perfectly capable of conducting their practices competently and ethically from nearly anywhere. I am hopeful that this realization will lead to changes in the ethics rules that will allow lawyers greater flexibility without the concern that they may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?
Working from home definitely presents challenges in keeping a good balance. It has been especially difficult for me because, in addition to my law practice, I also serve as an elected member of our local school board which, as you can imagine, has been extremely stressful, time-consuming, and demanding during the pandemic.
I am doing my best to carve out more time to exercise now that I am not commuting more than two hours a day. I also try to end my workday by dinner time to spend quality time with my family. Weekends are the hardest to avoid working when I know I have a lot to do and the office is just down the hall instead of all the way downtown (I didn’t have a home office prior to COVID).
I have found though, that I am much more productive when I do work if I block out at least one day a week to take a break from work and other obligations, even if it’s just to read a book or watch something mindless on Netflix.
Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Sari Montgomery here.