Chelsea Merta is the founder of Lotus Law & Legal Services, providing holistic representation for small business, nonprofit organizations, and community advocacy groups in the St. Louis area.
As courts work their way through the logistics of bringing back the "normal" that we knew before the global pandemic, one question stays ever-present in my head:
As we re-envision our sense of meaning and purpose as lawyers in a post-COVID world, this is the tough conversation that we must have with ourselves: that the "old" normal worked for some, but not for most.
The "old" normal placed low-income and working litigants at a disadvantage, causing hourly workers to miss entire shifts or work days to appear in court and to lose out on income. The "old" normal forced low-income mothers scramble to find child care, sometimes resigning to bringing young children with them to court. The "old" normal, unintentionally or otherwise, created a hierarchy within our neutral court system, based on access to private counsel, ability to appear in court, and affordability of extra expenses like guardians ad litem, psychological evaluations, drug tests, and much more.
The "old" normal relied on outdated technologies and systems that only select few could readily use (hello, fax users!) and that limited channels of communication with our courts. Under the "old" normal, some courts allowed us to contact clerks and judges by email; others did not. Based on your jurisdiction, you could be subject to a restrictive set of rules or no local rules at all, and sometimes, those rules weren't readily available online for attorneys who practices in other parts of the state.
The "old" normal was inconsistent at its best, and obstructive at its worst.
The "old" normal didn't cut it for the majority of Missourians, so why should we go back to it?
A global pandemic forced our legal system into the 21st Century, bringing long-overdue changes after decades of leaving so many behind. Email and electronic documents finally have become the standard practice across the state. From work or home with kids, unrepresented parties can now make their court appearances without risking the judge's ire, losing their jobs, or worse. Appearing by Zoom may be irritating to those of us in the white collar world, where our lives have centered around virtual meetings for the last fifteen months.
But we are not the majority, my friends, and if COVID-related changes have made litigants' lives easier — especially those of the working class — and the courts are more accessible than ever before, then why on earth would we want to revert back to the "old" normal? We talk about re-envisioning a world post-pandemic that doesn't just work for or benefit lawyers, and creating a new legal field means bringing everyone to the table, not just the privileged.
For better or for worse, the COVID-19 pandemic leveled the legal playing field in a lot of ways; as lawyers, we must now decide if these steps toward equity align with our ethos and our renewed sense purpose.