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Charleston Business

New S.C. Bar President Roy Laney discusses Covid-19, diversity and more

By Cindy Landrum

Columbia attorney Roy Laney was sworn in for a one-year term as president of the South Carolina Bar in May. Integrated Media, publisher of Greenville Business Magazine, Columbia Business Monthly and Charleston Business Magazine, asked Laney about the issues facing the legal profession and attorneys in South Carolina.

Q: The coronavirus pandemic has impacted every area of life this year. How has it affected the legal profession?

A: The coronavirus has had a significant impact on the legal profession. However, our judiciary and practicing attorneys have done a great job of adjusting and continuing to deliver legal services and administer justice. Our court system already was set up to handle the filing of documents electronically. We began conducting depositions, mediations and hearings by video conference. We also have the ability to conduct in-person hearings when conditions permit. At the right time, jury trials will continue. 

The success we've had starts at the top with Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty. Very early in the crisis, Chief Justice Beatty moved promptly and decisively to make changes to protect the citizens of South Carolina while at the same time allowing the work of our courts to continue. 

The bottom line is, while the pandemic has significantly changed the way legal services are delivered, the virus has not changed our core mission of providing justice to the people of South Carolina. South Carolinians can have confidence that our judicial system has adapted and is working well under the circumstances.  

Q: What do you see as the top trends facing the legal profession in 2020 and in the near future?

A: Like many other professions, the legal profession has become increasingly more dependent on information technology systems. Prior to the pandemic, most lawyers were reliant on their IT systems. The need for more virtual meetings, depositions, mediations and hearings has increased that reliance. A number of lawyers have found efficiencies in working remotely and probably will continue to do that after the public health crisis. We anticipate changes in practice area demand as the need for specific practice areas increases and decreases. An example is the need for employment lawyers to advise clients on Covid-19 related employment issues. 

Q: The death of George Floyd and others has put a spotlight on racial disparities in justice and other areas. What is the South Carolina Bar doing to promote fair and equal justice? 

A: The South Carolina Bar and our lawyers as individual practitioners will have significant roles in promoting fair and equal justice and in addressing racial disparities. As an organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice, the South Carolina Bar stands against injustice, racism and discrimination. Our Bar includes judges, public defenders, prosecutors, educators, elected officials, government lawyers and private practitioners, all of whom will play major roles in reshaping South Carolina. 

We also are examining our profession to address how we can improve diversity and inclusion and develop a pipeline to bring in a diverse group of lawyers into the profession. Our Diversity Committee has been active in identifying and proposing solutions to the inequities which exist in our profession. Our Young Lawyers Division Color of Justice Committee recently had a very successful online panel discussion called "Know Your Rights"� for the public. We also provide training to law firms on implicit bias. 

A key component of our lawyer's oath is pledging to ensure that justice is available to all citizens, and so promoting fair and equal justice is a core function of what we do. We are committed to having difficult conversations which need to take place and to do our part in leading South Carolina.

Q: What is S.C. Bar doing to promote diversity?

A: The South Carolina Bar recently adopted a five-year strategic diversity plan. It involves promoting diversity within our Bar leadership and providing programming and education to our Bar members to build a diverse and inclusive membership. We also will focus on promoting our profession in schools and developing the next generation of lawyers. There is another component which promotes diversity within our judiciary. 

We created an implementation committee to work on putting the plan into action right away. While we now have an outstanding roadmap, we know it will take our members collaborating to achieve the goals. We know this is a multifaceted issue with no simple solution, and we have tried to approach it from many angles. 

Q: What is the biggest issue facing South Carolina law firms during the next three years?

A: A significant issue for law firms will be fostering environments which are open and inclusive and provide opportunity for lawyers from diverse backgrounds to succeed. From a pandemic perspective, many law firms will face challenging economic times as some practice areas will experience decreased demand. Lawyers will need to be open to working in different practice areas and adjusting to the needs of our clients. 

Q: For businesses, what is the biggest legal issue with the coronavirus? How are attorneys helping them navigate it?

A: Businesses first need to focus on the health and safety of their employees and customers. Creating a safe environment for people to work and interact with customers should be the first priority.

There also are legal issues related to the economic downturn, such as employment reduction and housing. Loss of housing will be a critical issue for our state. 

Because of the economic downturn, there is an increased need for pro bono legal services. South Carolinians who previously could afford attorneys are no longer able to do so. The South Carolina Bar has opened a Covid-19 pro bono hotline to help match citizens in need with volunteer attorneys.

Q: What should business owners do to keep themselves on solid legal ground during this pandemic?

A: With the pandemic, most businesses had to write a new playbook on short notice. Because of the variety of businesses in our state, the issues will vary.  Safety for employees and customers should be the top priority. 

Generally speaking, I think it is critical for businesses to include their attorney as part of the core planning process. Do not wait to call your attorney until an emergency happens.  It is important to engage your attorney early to help avoid or minimize legal issues. The good news is we have great attorneys in South Carolina who are ready and willing to assist South Carolina business owners in navigating the pandemic.