Alone in the office
Daniel Romano, BCL, LL.B., MA,
(This essay was originally published in the October 2020 issue of the Senior Times, Page 8.)
The rays of the early morning sun come in at an horizontal angle through the floor-to-ceiling windows, bathing the entire office in a warm organic glow. There are no dust-motes that dance in the hallway because nobody has disturbed the tranquility since many days. It is 7:30 in the morning, Monday. Ordinarily, at this time, the office would give me the impression of a peacefully sleeping cat, storing up its energy in preparation for the active day to come, ready to leap into furious action instantly when the first attorney arrives for work.
Today, the sensation I get is more akin to having snuck into a museum before the opening hours. It looks like an idealized representation of an icon of the past, not something in current use. I can almost hear a narrator’s voice speaking through museum headphones: “This particular exhibit shows the physical arrangement of a Montreal law office where attorneys, legal technicians and other support staff once came to meet their clients and work on their files.” Of course, it is a highly idealized representation law office because everything is impeccably clean. There are chairs, computers, telephones, books, and desks, all perfectly arranged, but there are no papers spread out. No coffee cups sit half full beside a notepad and a pencil with its eraser half rubbed off. There are no signs of habitation by actual living people. There are no sounds. I am the only one here. Not the first to arrive, awaiting the storm of activity, but the only one who will arrive today, or this week, or for as far into the future as anyone of us can see. The office equipment sits, not waiting to be used, but as a reminder of what was used back when office personnel would come to work.
It is the beginning of my fourth week alone in the office since they made the announcement. We are late April of Year 2020, the year of the novel corona virus pandemic. And although our profession has been declared an essential service, people are too frightened to come in to work. I have to respect those who choose not to risk facing an invisible terror about which even our best scientists know so little.
As the name fluctuated from Chinese Virus to Wuhan Virus to eventually find its permanent identity as COVID-19, the news across the world got steadily worse. Governments at all levels imposed increasingly strict measures on the population in a seemingly futile attempt to stem a pandemic. This was a new disease. Humans have no resistance other than whatever advantage may come along with the blessings of good basic health.
Our legal teammates are not the only ones who are not venturing out of their homes. The entire office building of Westmount Square is empty, as is the mall underneath. The road outside is empty, empty of cars and of people. When I drive to work, there is no traffic. When I take the train and metro, I am alone in the wagon cars, alone in the stations, alone in the corridors. The stores are closed and the metal grills are all lowered. The lights are off. The effect is surreal. My steps echo across the empty metro station. I step outside, into the cold wind, and a crumpled newspaper blows down the deserted street. I feel like Charlton Heston in the movie Omega Man.
But I am not Omega Man and this is not the end of the world. By 7:45 I am sitting at my desk preparing memos for the team, most of whom are working from home. By 8:45, the phone begins to ring. I am alone. I am the acting receptionist. I transfer calls to the attorneys at their homes. I take messages. I am alone. I help the attorneys with the service and notification of proceedings. I am alone. I am the administrative assistant. I relearn all the skills from my internship so many years ago. I handle the bailiff and the suppliers. I am the legal technician. My own clients call. I am alone. I have to handle every aspect of their needs, and promise to get back to them as soon as possible. The phone finally stops ringing around 6:30 p.m. I stay a few more hours to finally work on my own files. I am their attorney, and I am alone.
The most challenging moments are when new clients call. There are emergencies. There are people who have not seen nor heard from their children in weeks. There are people who cannot contact their elderly relatives in nursing homes. People in retirement homes are calling, seeking help to get out. Too many people call, barely able to speak, their throats constricted with grief because their loved ones have died and they could not be there for them. People call to ask for a divorce, but now there is a sense of urgency in their voice. Please don’t call me back at this number. Please don’t e-mail me. I can’t get caught communicating with a law firm. I’ll call again when I can. People are trapped and do not know to whom to turn.
People are terrified and need someone to help them. I refer those whom I can to the other attorneys on the team, and I handle the rest myself. The team may be spread out across the city, but we are still functional. We are an essential service. People have legal emergencies. The courts are functional. I “appear” by telephone in Court in Quebec City and in Terrebonne and by video conference in Valleyfield and in Gatineau. I appear in person in the Court of Appeal in Montreal, but two of the three judges before whom I stand are appearing by video conference. These are unprecedented and uncertain times, and people are frightened. Many need help. Though we wish we could, we cannot save everyone. We can, however, at least be there for our clients. They need reassurance. They need to know that they are not alone. You are not alone.
Daniel Romano is an attorney with the law firm of KALMAN SAMUELS, Attorneys.
This essay was originally published in the October 2020 issue of the Senior Times, Page 8.