As the U.S. continues to recover from the pandemic, courtrooms around the country are beginning to reopen. That’s a major step back to normalcy for the justice system, but it also means a steep learning curve for all the players.
Newly admitted prosecutors and defense attorneys have spent the past year without in-person court hearings and trials. They will be at a disadvantage in the competitive environment of the courtroom, without the trial experience that usually takes time to pick up.
It won’t be easy for experienced players either. Some trial procedures will be dramatically different from the ones in force before March, 2019. Courtroom layouts may have to take account of continuing health risks. Jurors will be seated in different areas, and social distancing requirements may still apply. Some or all of the participants will be masked.
Movement will be limited.
It’s not clear how long this hybrid environment will last until full “normalcy” reappears, but it’s crucial to face up to the challenge now.
The last piece of the puzzle is how inexperienced attorneys will react to the influx of trials that will undoubtedly appear as courtrooms reopen for business. Even in jurisdictions that are not usually busy with trial work, a year without them has created a backlog.
To reduce the backlog, many jurisdictions will conduct trials at a rate that even experienced attorneys have not seen in many years, or maybe ever.
Adding to the challenge, many of the scheduled trials have been in limbo during the pandemic, so the docket will be filled with older cases, which are subject to some familiar problems: witness availability, disruption of evidence, and diminishing memory of events.
If these issues aren’t addressed, the problems of the post-pandemic courtroom could make the previous year’s experience look easy.
The congested schedules could lead to overwork and prevent valuable training for young attorneys. Combined with their lack of experience, they may feel inadequate and suffer losses at trial that could have been avoided—all of which could have a negative impact on their willingness to continue a legal career.
It doesn’t have to happen.
In fact, with proper support, this might be the ideal time for a young lawyer to begin trial work.
As courts look to rid themselves of the year-long backlog, trials could be scheduled to give new practitioners exposure to different judges, courtrooms and types of cases.
Court administrators should also focus on using staff in more productive ways. In many jurisdictions, cost considerations have led to staff layoffs. In others, many staffers may also be working from home, as a result of restrictions on work environments or to reduce their health risks.
Addressing this will require imaginative solutions. That can come in many forms, but most important will be mentorship.
Experienced practitioners should use this time―and should have been using the time during the pandemic―to impart wisdom and conduct trainings. Simple things such as learning how to move effectively around the courtroom are things that come with experience.
As the pandemic recedes, the legal community, especially the criminal justice community, must adjust.
Quick adjustment is not something that the legal community is known for. However, with the important work done in courtrooms all around the country, it’s a necessity.
Many young practitioners enter criminal justice trial work for a variety of reasons. The pay can be low, the work tiring. A successful transition out of the pandemic is not assured for new attorneys.
But an understanding of the problems that could be faced will help all of us bring the courts back to their central mission of ensuring swift and impartial justice.
Brad Terrace is Deputy County Attorney at the Pima County (Arizona) Attorney’s Office. He welcomes comments from readers.