Career & Practice

How should the legal profession navigate a post-COVID-19 world? ABA group has recommendations

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the ABA initiated one of the largest national surveys of its members, seeking to understand both how they had been affected and how they expected their practice to evolve in the future.

Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward: Results and Best Practices from a Nationwide Survey of the Legal Profession, published Monday by the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward, is based on input from more than 4,200 members who responded to the Practice Forward ABA Member Survey in September and October.

“Periods of major disruption can offer tremendous opportunities for leaders to rethink paradigms and improve processes,” ABA President Patricia Lee Refo said in a press release. “This report sets out a range of practices for legal employers to consider the best path forward.”

The Coordinating Group on Practice Forward—which was created to help members identify challenges and opportunities facing the legal profession because of COVID-19—provided a sneak peek at the survey during the 2021 ABA Midyear Meeting.

Its results show that more than half of lawyers are working from home nearly 100% of the time. They have experienced higher levels of stress and disengagement with social aspects of work and more frequent thoughts about whether to continue working full-time.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women with children and lawyers of color.

Black woman leaving her job

The transition to remote work disproportionately affected female lawyers with children and lawyers of color, according to the data. In particular, women were more likely to report increased disruptions to work due to personal obligations and feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

As a result of increased stress, the report says 53% of women with children age 5 or younger and 41% of women with children ages 6 to 13 have considered part-time work. Women also reported worrying more often about advancement, while women with children reported feeling more often that they were overlooked for assignments or opportunities.

While most lawyers noted that diversity, equity and inclusion strategies continue to be active in their workplaces during the pandemic, 47% of lawyers of color said they feel at least some stress on account of their race or ethnicity. Only 7% of white lawyers reported feeling stress at work because of their race.

“One of the things that stood out is the additional stress that lawyers of color feel on an everyday basis,” says Stephanie Scharf, a principal with the Chicago-based Red Bee Group, which designed and managed the survey. “That’s something I don’t think we’ve ever seen data about before, and it’s very important that people understand that felt experience.”

Scharf, a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor, adds that the survey’s results also show women feel additional stress simply because of their gender.

“So, people are walking around with very heavy loads that they really should not have to carry and that employers can help lift,” she says.

There’s no going back to business as usual.

In asking about the future of the legal profession, the Practice Forward ABA Member Survey discovered that most lawyers do not want to return to policies that were in place prior to the pandemic.

Among its findings, the survey shows that most members feel it is likely or very likely that lawyers in their workplaces will continue working remotely most or all the time in 2021 and 2022. Additionally, 36% reported they want the flexibility to choose their own schedule each week.

“It really talks about where we’re going in the practice,” says Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg, another principal with the Red Bee Group. “I would say it’s highly unlikely you’re ever going to return to the five-day workweek in the office model. Our survey findings demonstrate that a sizeable number of lawyers want the flexibility to pick at least one to two days when they’re not in the office.”

There are resources and benefits employers can provide to retain employees and help their well-being.

When members consider necessary resources, 54% view comprehensive sick and family leave plans as important, and 34% say guidance on mental health and well-being would be helpful. Significant numbers of lawyers seek increased employee engagement, including frequent communication from firm leaders about activities and goals.

The survey also asked members whether they want employers to lower their required billable hours or workload. Only 17% thought it would be very or extremely important, while 68% also said it is unlikely or very unlikely their employer would reduce the required billable hours in 2021 or 2022.

“That was something that was also very surprising to us, just given the pandemic,” says Liebenberg, a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia. “In fact, the blurring of day and night and weekend and weeknight, feeling like you must be on 24/7, is something that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Lawyers and firms should both consider what post-pandemic best practices they can implement.

Business person climbing upward from a covid vaccination towards productivity

The Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward report provides best practices that aim to help move the legal profession forward. These include requiring engaged, transparent and accountable leadership; providing clear written policies about work-from-home expectations; and using metrics to measure the success of policies and practices.

“People actually want to know, what should we do?” Scharf says. “These best practices are a road map to how either a law firm, a corporation or another organization that employs lawyers can think about where they are today and where do they want to be in three years?

“Lawyers in recent years have appreciated the importance of having strategies for growth and strategies for change, and these are the kinds of best practices that are the foundation for strategies moving forward.”

The report also offers best practices—such as setting realistic expectations, negotiating boundaries between home and work and maintaining frequent contact with clients, partners and other lawyers—to individual lawyers.

“The pandemic has had enormous downsides, but it has provided a unique opportunity to reevaluate what is really meaningful in your life and how do you want to live your life?” Liebenberg says. “That includes, how do you want to practice? To the extent that lawyers look at these best practices and realize this is an opportunity to reevaluate where they want to be, I think that is important.”

Visit the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward website for complete results and other information.

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