This month’s message is predictably and understandably focussed on the COVID -19 virus situation and its practical impact and implications for us at the Bar. The coverage is not due to a penchant for morbidity. Instead, we need to adjust and align to a “new normal” as a legal profession. There is undoubtedly some practice disruption that comes with fighting against a pandemic in our homeland.
This piece also serves as a recapitulation and consolidation of Law Society’s (Law Soc’s) action steps taken to date. It will also give guidance on the general precautions we need to continue to take as a profession. These are only baseline recommendations. Some firms, to my knowledge, have taken enhanced and additional measures.
There are two critical pillars to focus on during the present Dorscon Orange Alert (since 7 February this year): personal care and social responsibility.
On personal care, this entails basic self-care habits and disciplines such as (1) temperature checking before you leave home; (2) if unwell, seeking prompt medical treatment and staying away from office and meetings.
Many other personal care tips have already been stated and socialized from the highest levels of government. Some touch on the need to maintain personal hygiene. From washing your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water to not reusing a mask to not shaking hands.1See also Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and pandemic expert Laurie Garett’s tips on protecting against coronaviruses published in the Straits Times (12 February 2020 edition) I will not add to or repeat the counsel here.
For a number of us engaging in business travels as part of work, there are travel advisories that it would be wise to heed for the time being pending situation stabilization and dispute containment at the relevant locale. Our International Relations Department has helpfully curated and collated a list for your reference. (see the list here). To summarise the Singapore Government’s guidance and Law Soc’s own COVID-19 Advisory on travel circumspection:
- defer all travel to Hubei and avoid business or non-essential travel to Mainland China2Travel Advisory issued by Ministry of Health (“MOH”) on 22 January 2020 as well as to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, South Korea.3Travel Advisory issue by MOH on 23 February 2020 The public should also continue to exercise caution when travelling to the rest of South Korea4Travel Advisory issue by MOH on 23 February 2020.
- from 18 February 2020, 11.59 pm all returning travellers from China will be issued with a Stay-Home Notice that will require them to remain in their homes at all times for a 14-day period.5Ministry of Manpower and MOH Advisory for employers and employees (updated as of 29 February 2020)
- visitors who have travelled to Cheongdo county or Daegu city in the past fortnight will not be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore. Returning Singapore residents and long-term pass holders who have been to either of the two places in the past 14 days and arriving on or after 26 February 2020. 11.59 pm will be issued with a Stay-Home Notice that will require them to remain in their homes at all times for a fortnight.6Ministry of Manpower and MOH Advisory for employers and employees (updated as of 29 February 2020)
Those served with a Quarantine Order (QO) or issued a Stay-Home Notice (SHN) should act in accordance with law, exercise social responsibility and avoid social contact. As a corollary to this, many of you as responsible law firm employers do not want to fall foul of the law and facilitate a super-spreader situation by disrespecting the strict legal parameters of QOs or SHNs. According to MOH, persons on Leave of Absence (LOA), a precautionary measure, should remain in their residences as much as possible, minimize visitors and maintain good records of persons with whom they come into close contact. Although they may leave their residences for daily necessities or attend to important matters, they must minimize their time spent in public spaces and contact with others.7www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19/faqs
There are three different dimensions to social responsibility in your law practice that you need to be mindful of: personnel management, client interface and business continuity planning (BCP). BCP encompasses client and matter management. To elaborate:
- law firms should obtain a health and travel declaration from their employees, on whether they have travelled to mainland China or South Korea recently, or if they have any upcoming travel plans to those destinations. It would be prudent to advise employees with recent travel history to South Korea (excepting Daegu city and Cheongdo county where an SHN applies – see above) to go on a 14-day leave of absence (under which they should stay at home, minimize social contact and self-quarantine).8Adapted from Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020
- lawyers and staff with respiratory symptoms, who are unwell, issued a QO or SHN or on LOA should be prohibited from attending at your office.9Adapted from Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020
- employers should require staff to conduct regular temperature taking, at least twice a day. Anyone feverish should see a doctor immediately. If an employee’s temperature is above 38 degrees Celsius, he or she should not be at work.10Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020
- minimise face-to-face meetings (especially with clients from affected areas including local clusters – for which be vigilant and alert based on media coverage) and consider holding virtual meetings instead.11Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020 Many Law Society Committees and law firms have found free apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams to be useful for video-conferencing or tele-conferencing. This could be deployed in lieu of, or combined with, physical meetings. The silver lining in this episode is that the ready, able and willing can harness technology. Many of you who have not yet jumped onto the Tech-celerate bandwagon should seize the moment to sign up for these baseline and advanced offerings while you can until Labour Day this year. By adopting technology that enables efficiency, saves costs and time and yet does not compromise on service quality or dilute your brand, you can minimise practice disruption even if physically restricted.
- clients with respiratory symptoms, who are unwell, on LOA, issued a QO or SHN should be advised not to attend at your office.
- record the names and contact details of all visitors to your office.12Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020 This is prophylactic in case contact tracing is necessary. Practically speaking, ask the appropriate questions (of course, appropriately) of clients who physically attend at your offices whom you need to do more “due diligence”. Better to err on the side of caution.
BCP/Client and Matter Management
As BCP, Law Soc Members should consider setting up work-from-home arrangements for their law practices. To that end, do consider the following steps outlined in our 29 January 2020 advisory13Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020:
- encourage staff issued with office laptops to bring them home after work every day in case work-from-home arrangements are implemented on short notice. In doing so, staff should be mindful of cybersecurity and PDPA concerns. All laptops used by staff should also be installed with the latest anti-virus software.
- inform clients if you are working from home and provide alternative contact details to your clients to ensure that you remain contactable. Law firms may wish to consider including an email address on their letterheads for e-mail communication.
- should law firms decide to close their offices temporarily, please inform the Secretariat via an e-mail to [email protected]. We will assist in publicizing such office closures on Jus News and our website.
- hand over client files to fellow partners promptly and professionally should you fall ill (to the extent that this is feasible). Conversely, assist with the clients of fellow partners should the situation call for cover arrangements.
- sole proprietors are encouraged to follow the guidance given in the “Legal Practice Continuity Advisory” relating to the Practice Pal Scheme sent out to members in February last year. As the saying goes, a friend in need is a friend indeed. This is the time to have standby arrangements with buddies in the profession who could cover for you on a short term basis in the event of illness, prolonged hospitalization, etc.
Personnel Segregation14Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020
One facet which is likely more practical for larger or medium-sized set ups is personnel segregation as part of BCP. In short, consider having a Team A/Team B with one team telecommuting while the other team works from the office. You could alternate the team every week or with such frequency as considered suitable to your office and business needs. Alternatively, you could segregate according to addresses if you have more than one office. The assumption of course is that you have more than one team member for a position (e.g. two junior partners, two senior associates, two associates). The logic behind BCP is to have a functioning team at the office in the event of a contingency occurring that one team is down (e.g. on LOA, etc) because of a team member afflicted by the COVID-19 virus. It flows from that logic that there needs to be records (for contact tracing) if there is cross-team interaction or movements (e.g. working on a common litigation or corporate project). Long after this COVID-19 episode is over, you may yet find that there are benefits and efficiencies to be reaped in personnel telecommuting without hopefully compromising firm productivity or profitability.
Law Soc Bar Rooms/Maxwell Chambers Suites
We have, for a few weeks now, suspended our mandatory visitor registration and temperature scanning at our two Bar Rooms at the Courts.15Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020 The raison d’etre behind visitor registration was to facilitate contact tracing (if required). Since the Courts have already implemented mandatory visitor registration and temperature scanning, we need not duplicate those efforts. Our Law Society Reception at Maxwell continues to adopt these stringent practices. We have stepped up with the sanitation and hygiene of the Bar Rooms and Maxwell Chambers Suites with more frequent cleaning.
Postponement of Events and Webinars
Tough judgment calls needed to be made. Our inaugural Corporate Law Day, originally scheduled for 19 February 2020, will now be postponed to the second half of the year16Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020. Likewise, our Law Soc Pro Bono Services annual fundraising and awareness showpiece, named “Just Laugh” has been postponed (no, this is no laughing matter). Our Law Soc Mission trip under the auspices of LG2 to Vietnam has also unfortunately, inevitably been retimed to later this year.17Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020
We adopted webinar formats for some CPD events such as the Legal Practice Management Course on 27 February 2020. Earlier in February, we conducted a novel live webcast format for Meeting Clients’ Demand for “Faster-Better-Cheaper” with Workflow Automation. Good feedback was received for these offerings from members and speakers. The show goes on but with a different modality. This is an opportunity to fully utilize online pedagogy via tech tools with less costs and more convenience.
As practitioners, we can carry on business as usual albeit with some adjustments and limited disruption. We should continue to stay alert, vigilant and nimble as well as take sensible precautions (including those listed above) as a responsible legal profession.
From the Law Society’s point of view, the well-being and safety of each and every of you is our paramount consideration. Hence, some of the drastic measures taken to date of deferment and cancellation of events. The Law Society will continue to monitor the situation actively and take appropriate, additional precautions as required. A COVID-19 Taskforce comprising the other Office-Bearers and myself have been set up to make expedient, emergency decisions where necessary.
I continue to encourage all members to access the government website www.gov.sg regularly for the latest health and travel advisories. You can also receive the latest updates on the COVID_19 developments (including preventative measures) from Ministry of Health’s website. For your easy reference, we have posted such key advisories on our website here.
As the situation continues to evolve, some of the measures outlined here will also evolve in tandem from time to time. We all pray for that day, sooner rather than later, when we return to Dorscon Yellow and later Dorscon Green.
Stay healthy and safe. And stay concerned and care for each other as brothers and sisters in law.
Endnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||See also Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and pandemic expert Laurie Garett’s tips on protecting against coronaviruses published in the Straits Times (12 February 2020 edition)|
|2.||↑||Travel Advisory issued by Ministry of Health (“MOH”) on 22 January 2020|
|3.||↑||Travel Advisory issue by MOH on 23 February 2020|
|4.||↑||Travel Advisory issue by MOH on 23 February 2020|
|5.||↑||Ministry of Manpower and MOH Advisory for employers and employees (updated as of 29 February 2020)|
|6.||↑||Ministry of Manpower and MOH Advisory for employers and employees (updated as of 29 February 2020)|
|8.||↑||Adapted from Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|9.||↑||Adapted from Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|10.||↑||Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|11.||↑||Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020|
|12.||↑||Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020|
|13.||↑||Law Soc Advisory issued on 29 January 2020|
|14.||↑||Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|15.||↑||Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|16.||↑||Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|
|17.||↑||Law Soc Further Advisory issued on 8 February 2020|