Partner at top firm explains the business operation challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, shares how her firm is overcoming them
A partner at one leading personal injury firm says she's 'pleased' that remote accommodations by courts and an agile shift to work from home on the part of her team and the industry in general has kept cases, and the business operations, ticking along.
Stacy Koumarelas, partner at Neinstein Personal Injury Lawyers, says that a legal system with a strong focus on pre-trial settlements and the shift of key steps like mediation to remote platforms has prevented the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming an insurmountable obstacle for her clients and her firm. Operations have been able to continue with enough normalcy that Neinstein LLP is still able to provide full service for their clients, ensuring access to justice even if courts currently remain closed for trials. In the first days of the pandemic, though, she says there was a great deal of fear as to whether civil litigation work could continue and how clients' rights could be affected by the pandemic
"Initially we were all uncertain about how we were going to run our practice," Koumarelas says. "We had never worked remotely, met clients virtually and we have never conducted examinations via zoom. As we learned how to put the platforms in place to allow mediations and discoveries to still go ahead we had to evolve in how we practiced. We worked out how to implement the proper systems from home. We made sure requests for medical records were sent out, authorizations were received from the clients, that funds are distributed to the clients, and that timely settlements could still be achieved through cooperation and preparation.
"That was initially very challenging for our firm and for the entire legal profession."
Koumarelas says that an accommodating court system and quick work on her firm's part has managed to "streamline" those changes and keep operations moving. In the immediate term, additional trial delays aren't yet being felt acutely by the firm, although it is definitely a concern on a case by case basis. For one, Koumarelas says that before the pandemic delays were already reality, and it is hoped that any increase is likely to be short lived considering the sometimes-two-year waits to get to trial post mediation. As well, she says that insurance companies aren't using the potential of extra trial delays to strengthen their hands and refuse to settle. Lawyers on the personal injury and insurance defense side, Koumarelas says, are still evaluating and resolving cases based on a realistic assessment of the case. She says she hasn't seen insurance companies using the crisis to opportunistically take advantage of any vulnerable clients.
The cases facing the most uncertainty are those destined for trial. Koumarelas says, though, that the firm never banks on certainty from trial because it's an environment in which anything can happen.
With mediations and settlements still occurring, albeit in a new and virtual environment, Koumarelas says her firm is still able to offer the key cornerstones of their client service: contingency arrangements and rapid communication. Contingency arrangements, she says, are a key access to justice issue and despite the costs law firms might have to bear in large, complex medical malpractice cases, Koumarelas says Neinstein is still committed to offering these arrangements to their clients to ensure that those that have been seriously injured have access to justice.
Neinstein's direct client communication hinges on its team approach. While many businesses across Canada have streamlined, laid off staff, and transitioned to leaner operations, Koumarelas says the service provided by the firm's whole team and all of its support staff is essential to their continued practice. She's confident that won't change in any post-pandemic normal.
Koumarelas' greatest concern remains for her injured clients. She says the key treatments an injured person receives after an accident, especially physiotherapy, are hugely challenged by our current reality. She's seen clients well behind their recovery targets simply because they can't get the in-home care they need.
On the operations side of the practice, though, despite the likelihood of new challenges ahead, Koumarelas is confident in the legal system and her firm's ability to cope with whatever the future brings.
"There is a little bit of apprehension about conducting examinations for discovery over Zoom," Koumarelas says as an example of the issues that may lie ahead. "I do think that some of the challenges will be assessing whether or not it is appropriate for some cases that have imminent examinations to be delayed because the client needs you beside them."
Despite those concerns, though, Koumarelas remains optimistic.
"I think we will continue to evolve and continue to make changes," She says. "Provided that everybody continues to cooperate and focus on the needs of injured Ontarians."