Pittsburgh legal community continues to be amazingly resourceful and resolute throughout pandemic

June 5, 2020
President’s Message By Lori McMaster

Undoubtedly every president of the Allegheny County Bar Association has asked themselves the following question upon the start of their term: What complicated or sensitive event will occur during my presidential year? For some bar association presidents, that issue has involved judicial misconduct. For others, it has involved governance issues, or strategic review of the ACBA’s diversity initiatives. For Bryan Neft, it was the horrific attack upon the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the question of how the bar association could best support our broader community in the aftermath of the shooting.

For me, and for our President-Elect, Elizabeth Hughes, the central issue has been, and will continue to be, the COVID-19 pandemic, which befell Pittsburgh quite suddenly. The ACBA celebrated its 150th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, March 7. By Friday, March 13, I was packing up my office files to work from home.

On March 19, Governor Wolf issued an Executive Order declaring a Statewide Health Emergency and mandating all non-lifesaving businesses to close. Only those businesses deemed “essential” were permitted to remain open. These businesses included health care and medical facilities, grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, etc. Lawyers and law firms were not deemed “essential businesses” by Governor Wolf. New York and New Jersey also deemed attorneys and law firms as non-essential businesses under their emergency declarations. Some lawyers and law firms across the Commonwealth submitted and were granted waivers. The two waiver requests submitted by the Pennsylvania Bar Association to deem attorneys as “essential” were denied.

The officers and management of the ACBA received reports from some of our members expressing frustration with the Governor’s waiver process. A handful of members inquired about the bar association’s lack of lobbying efforts to force the Governor to deem attorneys “essential.”

The bar association declined to lobby the Governor to designate attorneys and law firms as essential businesses because:

• Governor Wolf has repeatedly vetoed legislation that singles out various businesses and professions as “essential” because the bills seek to grant waivers to select businesses on a statewide basis without any statistical data to support why certain businesses should be permitted to re-open amid the health crisis.

• In May, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed House Bill 2412. This legislation allows realtors, attorneys, and civil service organizations to re-open their offices if they are practicing social distancing and following the CDC guidelines for maintaining safety measures during a pandemic. The bill was referred to the Pennsylvania Senate, and was passed, with a few amendments, strictly along partisan lines, with all Republican senators voting in favor, and all Democrats voting against. The bill then went back to the House for a concurrence vote. The Governor is expected to veto the legislation.

• At the May 5th Board of Governors meeting, the Board reviewed House Bill 2412 and voted not to support it, as our top priority remains the health and safety of our members, bar association staff and the general public during the pandemic. The Board of Governors acknowledged that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had invoked its rarely used King’s Bench power to twice reject attempts seeking to invalidate the Governor’s Executive Order. We also recognized that the Supreme Court has been very clear from the beginning of the pandemic in stating that attorneys are permitted to work if they do so remotely. The court also issued “Guidance to Legal Professionals,” including a statement that lawyers and staff may access physical offices on a limited basis as necessary to render legal services that cannot be practically completed through the use of advanced communication technology, including services critical to clients’ needs in the areas of health, end of life matters, incompetence, incapacity, etc.

Our members have been amazingly resourceful and resolute in maintaining their practices throughout the pandemic, despite the constraints which have been imposed upon us. The courts are open and are handling emergency matters that involve lifesaving issues. The Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, under the superb leadership of President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, continues to develop virtual methods to address attorney and client issues. Therefore, the practice of law in Allegheny County, and the work of our bar association and of our state courts, has continued.

The ACBA is a trade association whose broad mission includes supporting the business interests of our nearly 6,000 members. However, we need to balance our members’ business interests along with our broader civic responsibility to help control the spread of a highly infectious, pervasive disease. These are extraordinary times that require difficult decisions. The ACBA Board of Governors decided in early April to suspend all in-person activities, CLE’s and events through June 30th to ensure that our staff and members remain safe. We took the unprecedented (and heart breaking) step of cancelling the 2020 Bench-Bar Conference in deference to these same concerns. I realize that the Board’s decisions in this regard are not popular among all our members. However, the overwhelming sentiment expressed by the membership has been supportive of the ACBA’s focus upon assisting attorneys in operating remotely. The ACBA has remained fully functional while staff telework to serve our members and keep them informed regarding how the pandemic is impacting the courts, the bar association and the profession. I applaud our members for remaining “Pittsburgh Strong” in continuing to serve their clients while facing down the existential threat of COVID-19.

Please do share your thoughts about this message with me at mcmaster@pitt.edu or 412-648-2359.

All my best, Lori.