An office closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: J. Albert Diaz/ALM

The New York State Bar Association is pushing for law offices to be allowed to reopen before other nonessential businesses, announcing Wednesday that it’s formed a group to recommend how to quickly and safely bring lawyers and staff back to their offices.

The state bar said its “Restarting the Economy Working Group” will consult with a wide range of officials, such as law office managers, health authorities and labor experts, to guide law firms and policymakers on “the safest and most efficient way for law firms to reopen.”

Lawyers, like many nonessential workers, have largely been required to work from home under New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s orders to address the coronavirus pandemic. But with new cases of the virus apparently dropping, the governor has talked about a phased reopening of certain sectors of the economy. Hank Greenberg, the president of the state bar and a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig, said the legal profession must be a top priority.

“It’s not Hank Greenberg just beating the drum for lawyers,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “The rule of law is dependent on lawyers. We are the footsoldiers of the Constitution. We are utterly vital and essential to society.”

“It is absolutely true that we can do a lot of our work remotely … and I think we will continue to do a lot of our work remotely,” he continued. But “from an economic perspective, having the legal profession be able to function, survive the crisis, and flourish is critical. If lawyers can’t work, if lawyers can’t make a living, if lawyers are not in a position to help clients, that is a direct threat to the vibrancy of the rule of law.”

Members of the state bar group include Mark Berman, a partner at Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer; Hermes Fernandez, a partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King; Martin Kaminsky, chief legal officer and general counsel at Greenberg Traurig; Devika Kewalramani, a partner and general counsel at Moses & Singer; Evan Krinick, managing partner of Rivkin Radler; Domenick Napoletano, a solo practitioner; Marian Rice, a partner at L’Abate, Balkan, Colavita & Contini; and David Schraver, of counsel at Nixon Peabody.

Schraver said it was too early to say what recommendations the group would make, but he said safety would be paramount. He said some firms have instituted shifts for certain workers and required foot traffic to flow in just one direction.

“One of the issues is that there are so many different types of law offices across the state,” he said. “There are large firms in multistory buildings that have conference rooms of all different sizes and shapes, and there are solo and small-firm practices across the state that have much different kinds of offices.”

Cuomo said Sunday that activities like construction and manufacturing can resume upstate in mid-May as part of a phased reopening that can scale up and down as circumstances demand. If new coronavirus cases continue on their downward trajectory and hospital capacity is sufficient to address an outbreak, he said, different regions of the state will be able to reopen different economic sectors.

No hard dates have been set, however, and the governor said that businesses will need to have plans in place to protect their employees and customers. At the federal level, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, has said social distancing will likely be the norm for months to come.

The state bar says the sooner lawyers are back in the offices, the sooner they can start to reverse some of the economic damage to their businesses. Law firms big and small have cut compensation and furloughed employees in anticipation of a major decline in revenue, and some practices—like real-estate dealmaking—have run into roadblocks, even as others—like employment counseling—have seen a surge in demand.

For litigators, court closures have been a major issue. Many lawyers who are regularly in court for matters like personal injury, insurance defense and landlord-tenant disputes have seen work dry up. Jury trials have been postponed in courts nationwide. While New York’s state courts have made moves to resume proceedings that had been paused, they are only processing new civil complaints for a narrow range of urgent matters.