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Shutdown Takes Toll on D.C. Legal Community

By Anna Stolley Persky

January 17, 2019

As the partial government shutdown continues, furloughed employees say they are losing hope that they will go back to work anytime soon. And, as the days go by, the legal community is getting hit hard, both directly and indirectly.  

“As more and more time passes, we are seeing the real impact that the shutdown has on the legal community and our greater D.C. region,” says Rebecca Geller, president and CEO of the Geller Law Group in Fairfax, Virginia.

First off, there are the lawyers who are without work. Among the 800,000 federal employees affected by the partial shutdown are practicing and nonpracticing lawyers from a variety of agencies, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
 
“It goes without saying that many D.C. area lawyers are furloughed right now because they work for government agencies that are shut down,” says Geller. “Lawyers, just like any other furloughed employees, have dependent children at home, spouses, and aging parents who are directly supported by their income. They are unable to pay for groceries, child care, college tuition, credit card bills, and their rent or mortgage because they have not received a paycheck in several weeks.”
 
And, Geller adds, the shutdown “raises questions that are tough to answer, such as how can I pay child support or spousal support obligations if I am not getting a paycheck?”
 
Erica Kim, a furloughed policy analyst for the U.S. Forest Service, describes her current state of mind as “very antsy and adrift.”
 
“I’ve got no routine anymore,” says Kim. “I’m just ping-ponging around the house, concerned that I’m chipping away at my savings which were supposed to be there for catastrophes.” Kim adds that her angst is not just for herself, but also “for the furloughed employees who live paycheck to paycheck, where missing one paycheck means that they are not OK.”
 
And then there are the ripple effects on lawyers in private practice, their clients, and the business community. 
 
R. Wilson “Trey” Powers III, a director in the Washington, D.C., office of Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox, P.L.L.C., says his practice has been complicated by the partial shutdown, to say the least. The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC), for example, has ceased regular operations, which means Powers’ clients waiting for ITC rulings are in an “indefinite holding pattern.”
 
“Because of the shutdown, we don’t have the rulings that our clients were expecting,” says Powers. In addition, the longer the partial shutdown continues, the more work will pile up for furloughed employees to handle once they return, he says.
 
Some federal agencies are still operating relatively normally, but not necessarily for much longer. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), for example, says it has enough funds to operate for a few weeks longer. After that it will have to shut down for the most part, operating with a “small staff,” according to its website. 
 
“If this happens, then everything at the USPTO will get backed up,” says Tracy-Gene G. Durkin, also a director at Sterne Kessler. “It already takes at least two years to get a patent granted. Any further delay affects business and innovation.”
 
And, of course, federal courts are starting to feel the pinch too. Although the courts won’t completely shut down, civil litigation will likely be stalled in favor of the most critical cases.
 
“If the government ceases its function of adjudicating parties’ disputes, then the legal system isn’t functioning properly,” says Powers. “Folks don’t always remember everything our government does, and it’s easy to take it for granted. But when there’s a shutdown, we are reminded that we actually do need the government.”
 
In the meantime, the legal community is gearing up to help government employees who need work and assistance. Geller’s firm, for example, is hiring furloughed government workers for temporary employment on administrative projects. 
 
“There is a talented workforce out there that would rather be working, and they are getting frustrated sitting at home,” says Geller. “Our thought was to help our community by providing a means for additional income to these federal employees while they are not getting paid by their regular jobs and don't know if they will get repaid for this time.”