Hurricane Sandy was tough on many law firms, but it was especially hard on solo practitioners and small firms lacking support services.
As they tried to get back to business last week, solos and small firms were confronted with problems like inaccessible case files, the inability to make it to court and some impatient clients and adversaries.
“As a solo practitioner, we’re handicapped to begin with,” said Ruth Bernstein, who has practiced law by herself for the past 18 years, juggling about 75 cases at any one time.
Solos, she continued, operate “without a net” and are “up against big defense firms. We rely on our smarts and our guts and ability to work hard and our dedication and devotion to what we do. Any handicap on top of the ones we’re already laboring under, it can tip the balance very easily.”
Without power, heat or running water at her Long Beach home as of Nov. 2, Bernstein still considered herself “blessed” after she lost her cars but her home was not flooded. She was not able to make it into her Manhattan offices last week, though her paralegal made it in twice to field calls and check voice messages.
“I really haven’t dealt with anything except survival and trying to help my neighbors,” she said. “I’m really just placing my faith in [the Office of Court Administration] and individual judges who might be presiding over my cases to grant me appropriate adjournments so I can have a fighting chance to represent my clients.”
Jill Zuccardy, a solo practitioner handling family law cases, could not get to the case files in her lower Manhattan office building last week and spent her days at her Brooklyn residence “just hovering over email all day.”
While others slowly got back to work, Zuccardy, for instance, had to repeatedly impress on an adversary on Nov. 1 that she was not capable of traveling to White Plains to work on an agreement with an impending deadline—let alone the fact she could not get her hands on the court file.
Then on Nov. 2, she said, she had to explain to Queens Family Court clerks several times why she could not send a fax when they insisted they could accept no other communication. Only after “getting emotional,” Zuccardy finally got through to the court part that arranged an adjournment.
By Nov. 4, power came back at her office and Zuccardy worked a full day. She noticed many attorneys appeared to be doing the same, based on the multiple email replies she received.
“I think the worst thing about last week was the helplessness,” she said yesterday, noting how she was now attempting to prioritize as clients contacted her asking if she could work on their case now that she was back at her office.
Dawn Cardi, an attorney with a small Manhattan firm consisting of herself and four associates, agreed that patience last week appeared to wear thin in some quarters.
Cardi could not get her case files after the power went out in her Midtown East building. Nevertheless, she said she encountered a lack of understanding from some court clerks outside Manhattan when she tried to explain her inability to move forward.
The response was not “unkind,” she recalled, but the clerks still noted other attorneys were managing to make it to court.
“There can’t be business as usual in the court system for now,” Cardi said.
In Nassau County, solo criminal defense attorney William Kephart said that yesterday—the first day his Garden City offices had power restored—a major task was checking the status of the more than 20 cases he had calendared for last week.
Kephart noted that the shortage of gasoline would be a “huge issue” in the near future for attorneys in suburban areas, whose work usually requires car travel.
Kephart planned to reschedule a matter in Riverhead, some 60 miles away.
“I’m going to be asking the court for an adjournment so I don’t have to burn that gas,” he said.
Justin Blitz, of three-attorney Schulman Blitz in Manhattan, said that small firms and solos operate on slim margins, making lost court days particularly costly.
“I don’t make money sitting in an office, I make money in court,” he said, observing that he did not have other attorneys to whom he could pass trials he was prevented from handling by the storm.
Blitz’s own Midtown West offices lost power during the storm.
As a result, he could only get a case file for an important upcoming deposition after the neighboring building’s superintendent let him—wearing a headlight—get to his office through an emergency door.
Nevertheless, Blitz spent Nov. 4 volunteering on Staten Island, where he saw “lives ruined.”
He said the experience “put in perspective” how what happened to him was “a slight, minor irritation.”
@|Andrew Keshner can be contacted at email@example.com.