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The Heat Wave Is Here. Should You Check In on Your Client?

By Thai Phi Le

July 26, 2016


The heat is scorching, the air is thick, and sweat is pouring as most of the country deals with record-high temperatures. In extreme weather conditions, where the elderly, homeless, and low-income clients are the most vulnerable, do you have an ethical duty to ensure their safety?

For many attorneys who serve this population, often pro bono, the question is more about morals than ethics, says Saul Singer, legal ethics counsel at the D.C. Bar. While you are not ethically bound to check in on them, you certainly can, especially if you're worried about their safety.

"You're not their doctor. You're not responsible for them. You're only responsible to diligently, competently, and zealously see to the clients' legal needs to handle their case," he says.

What if you call them and they are in dire straits from the heat? Can you pay for temporary housing? The answer is maybe. While Rule 1.8(d) of the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct state that "limited to those strictly necessary to sustain the client during the litigation, such as medical expenses and minimum living expenses." The Comment further states:

The purpose of permitting such payments is to avoid situations in which a client is compelled by exigent financial circumstances to settle a claim on unfavorable terms in order to receive the immediate proceeds of settlement. 

In other words, any financial assistance provided must directly be related to your ability to keep a case moving forward.

As the heat wave continues to roll through, government and private offices in affected areas have reiterated precautions to ensure everyone's safety. Whether you're cycling to the courthouse or walking to a meeting, here are a couple of tips to beat the heat while still getting your job done.

Call the courthouse first. On the morning of June 16, the cooling unit at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Arkansas came to a halt due to extreme heat, shutting down all operations for the day. Courthouses throughout the United States are among some of the oldest buildings in towns. According to an April 2014 report by the American Institute of Architects, the average federal courthouse is 47 years old, with thousands of others built prior to 1930.

Call your local courthouse before trudging through the heat. In some of the older buildings, the chances of an AC breakdown could be as high as the temperatures. No reason to arrive a sweaty mess if the courts are closed.

Dress for the weather, but check your dress code. Different firms and organizations have different dress codes, many of which are changed to adapt to the heat. Many organizations typically stick to business casual in the summer, allowing lawyers flexibility on what to wear.

If you have to go to court, leave a suit and tie at the office to slip on when absolutely necessary. The Bar Council of India took dress code changes a step further in 2014 to permit lawyers arguing cases in "subordinate courts" to skip the typical long black gown or coat. (That year, India experienced a record-breaking heat wave that claimed many lives.)

If you're unsure of what you can wear, give your human resources department a ring and they can guide you on office culture.

Finally, don't forget the obvious: You may be moving from meeting to meeting, but water is your best friend. Drink up and stay cool!