The Value of Knowledge
The proverbial phrase, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” has been discredited as an idiom—especially in times such as these—as has its corollary, “Ignorance is bliss.” To the contrary, what you don’t know can, and often does, hurt you and others, and a lack of knowledge does not minimize the likelihood of an occurrence—it often increases it. But what is the value of knowledge, and what is the benefit of ignorance?
As for knowledge, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there are at least seven known strains of coronavirus to date,(1) with the possibility of an eighth.(2) Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was first reported in February 2003,(3) and SARS-CoV-2 is a new strain of coronavirus discovered in 2019 that causes coronavirus disease, or COVID-19.(4) The virus infects the upper respiratory tract and can lead to the onset of pneumonia, which is the primary mechanism that leads to death for a small percentage of infected individuals. Additionally the virus can enter the blood system and also potentially relocate to other areas like the heart and digestive tract.(5)
Prior to its spread across China in December 2019, few Americans had ever heard of the coronavirus or COVID-19. Our daily lives progressed relatively unimpeded by societal or governmental intervention—perhaps blissfully. However, that changed dramatically when, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.(6)
Lightning Strikes, as Do Viruses
It has been said that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Yet researchers have determined that charged atmospheric particles often do not completely discharge upon a lightning strike, with the stored charge returning to the atmosphere to initiate further discharges, often in the same locations, and often in rapid succession.(7) Like lightning, viruses attack, retreat, mutate, and return—and they are matched only by our resolve to control and eradicate them.
Prior to the WHO’s March 11 declaration, the last pandemic declared by the WHO was the “swine flu,” or H1N1, in 2009.(8) These two WHO pandemic declarations are distinct in several ways. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, COVID-19 is not the flu, and the H1N1 pandemic did not result in widespread national disruptions, work stoppages, and closures in the U.S. Official actions to combat the spread of COVID-19 have included declarations on March 11 by authorities in Houston and Harris County,(9) as well as on March 12 for Dallas(10) and Dallas County,(11) followed on March 13 by President Donald Trump’s declaration of a National Emergency(12) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s declaration of a state of disaster in all Texas counties.(13) Governments have subsequently issued various “social distancing” guidelines(14) and “stay home, stay safe” shelter-at-home orders,(15) with exceptions for “essential activities,” “essential government functions,” and “essential businesses.”(16) The disruption of daily life, activities, and the economy that has ensued is unprecedented in American society—and will continue for weeks and perhaps months. The inevitable alteration of American business, civil society, and culture will be more lasting.
Acts of God, Acts of Man, and Human Interaction
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused great disruption to our lives and altered our professional and personal lifestyles; however, as history illustrates, the legal profession is a dynamic organism—living, breathing, impacting, and adapting. What is the future of our profession in a COVID-19 environment—or a post-COVID-19 environment? The answer to that inquiry is in large measure defined by COVID-19’s impact on society and consideration must be given to COVID-19’s impact on traditional human interaction.
People will determine which was more impactful—COVID-19 or the world’s response to it. But what of the acts of God or of man impacting the nature of human performance or interaction, especially as society prepares to emerge from the declarations of various civil authorities requiring social distancing, shelter-in-place, and virtual realities?
Technology was arguably placing society on an arc increasingly emphasizing digital interaction rather than traditional in-person interaction: self-checkout; the internet; social media; and email. In a not-so-distant future, when the COVID-19 pandemic is viewed through the prism of history, it may be said that it is the “virus that made America virtual.” COVID-19 may be viewed as an accelerant toward this gradual technological societal shift—more prevalent in younger, perhaps more technologically savvy generations. What can be characterized as “detached engagement”—a type of societal engagement that defaults to virtual interaction over in-person contact—will now become more prevalent across various ages and societal demographics. Although the value of in-person interaction is still paramount, those subscribing to this non-exclusive form of interaction are no less engaged, but engaged in non-traditional ways (likely virtually): webinars over seminars, social-distancing over social gatherings, homebound over handshakes, and FaceTime and Facebook over face time.
Lawyers and the “New Normal”
As the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and we revert to our traditional notions of normalcy, we will become increasingly and keenly aware that COVID-19 created (or greatly contributed to) this “new normal”—a reality from which the legal profession is not immune. Out of necessity, working from home has become commonplace, and employers and employees have become more comfortable with the concept of virtual workplaces. Expectations of responsiveness and quality legal service have not decreased; they have arguably increased, as have the expectations of clients for attorneys to provide high quality legal services in the most efficient and cost-effective manner professionally possible. Accordingly, technological competence is as important as ever. The nature of networking and client development is now changed as well, and lawyers must adapt to likely apprehension from potential clients to attend large gatherings or to participate in gatherings or events that may be considered to increase susceptibility or exposure to COVID-19. Professional relationships will be increasingly defined by personal contact, with a decreased emphasis on personal presence.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and face new realities virtual or otherwise—lawyers must be ever mindful that they not only uphold the rule of law, they serve as agents of change and adapt to the challenges of today while creating the opportunities for tomorrow. How lawyers respond and adapt to COVID-19 will in large measure define our profession now and for generations to come.
- Human Coronavirus Types, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Feb. 15, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/types.html.
- Melissa Healy, Here’s why Chinese scientists say there’s a second, more dangerous coronavirus strain, Los Angeles Times (Mar. 5, 2020, 9:47 PM), https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2020-03-05/chinese-scientists-say-second-coronavirus-strain-more-dangerous.
- Coronavirus (COVID-19), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
- WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020, World Health Organization (Mar. 11, 2020), https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19—11-march-2020.
- Jan Wesner Childs, Scientists Have Always Known Lightning Does Strike Twice in the Same Place, But Now They Think They Know Why, The Weather Channel (Apr. 18, 2019, 1:45 PM), https://weather.com/science/news/2019-04-18-why-lightning-strikes-twice.
- WHO Director-General Margaret Chan’s Statement to the Press, World Health Organization (Jun. 11, 2009), https://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2009/h1n1_pandemic_phase6_20090611/en/.
- Mayor’s Office Press Release, City of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Declare Public Health Emergency Due to COVID-19 (Mar. 11, 2020), http://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/press/2020/public-health-emergency-declared-covid-19.html.
- Public Announcement, City of Dallas, Mayor Eric Johnson issues a proclamation declaring a local state of disaster (Mar. 12, 2020, 10:44 PM), http://www.dallascitynews.net/mayor-eric-johnson-issues-proclamation-declaring-local-state-disaster.
- Declaration, Dallas County, Declaration of Local Disaster for Public Health Emergency (Mar. 12, 2020), https://www.dallascounty.org/Assets/uploads/docs/judge-jenkins/covid-19/031220-FinalDisasterDeclaration.pdf.
- Proclamation, The White House, Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak (Mar. 13, 2020), https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-declaring-national-emergency-concerning-novel-coronavirus-disease-covid-19-outbreak/.
- Proclamation, Office of the Texas Governor, Governor Abbott Declares State of Disaster in Texas Due To COVID-19 (Mar. 13, 2020), https://gov.texas.gov/news/post/governor-abbott-declares-state-of-disaster-in-texas-due-to-covid-19.
- Press Release, The White House, The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America (Mar. 16, 2020), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/03.16.20_coronavirus-guidance_8.5x11_315PM.pdf.
- Amended Order of County Judge Clay Jenkins, Dallas County, (Mar. 22, 2020), https://www.dallascounty.org/Assets/uploads/docs/judge-jenkins/covid-19/03232020-AmendedOrder.pdf.
Paul K. Stafford has been a business and insurance litigator for approximately 25 years, has served as an adjunct professor at Texas Tech University School of Law and at Texas A&M University School of Law, and served as president of the Dallas Bar Association in 2012. He can be contacted at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.