New ABA Report: Lawyers, Pandemic Stress, and the Future

No matter how you look at it, the pandemic had – and continues to have – a significant impact on the legal profession and the practice of law. Some of the effects were welcome, including technology and change adoption, while others were less so, not the least of which was the unexpected stress and disruption it caused. While we’re not yet on the other side of this once-in-a-lifetime event, the light at the end of the tunnel is at least visible now, and there’s time to reflect on the lessons learned that the profession can leverage in the here and now and in the future.

That’s where studies and surveys come in – they offer insight and analysis that can be used to help lawyers and their firms prepare for whatever may come. One of the most recent surveys to be released that includes data on how the pandemic affected the legal profession is the ABA Profile of the Profession 2021. The first section of the report for this survey focused on the pandemic and its impact on both the practice of law and on lawyers’ perspectives about the future, including retirement. Let’s take a look at some of the findings.

Effects of the pandemic

For starters, the survey provided a variety of data points focused on how the pandemic affected the wellbeing of lawyers, including how lawyers reacted to the challenges presented by remote working. Lawyers were asked whether the pandemic added to their work stress levels, and less than half of lawyers (40%) reported that their overall stress levels related to work increased. Interestingly, however, the results varied significantly between men and women. 52% of women lawyers shared that their stress levels had increased, whereas only 34% of men did so. Also notable was that 48% of lawyers of color who were surveyed also reported having increased work-related stressors.

Not surprisingly, the survey also addressed remote work practices during the pandemic. Lawyers were asked how often they had worked remotely since the onset of the pandemic. The majority of lawyers (54%) reported that thus far they have worked remotely nearly 100% of the time. Another 25% shared that they’d worked remotely between 25 -75% of the time. Finally a minority of respondents – 22% – worked remotely hardly at all throughout the pandemic.

Given the change in many lawyers’ working situations, the survey also focused on how remote work impacted lawyers work experiences. A top finding was that the pandemic resulted in many lawyers (49%) feeling disengaged from their firm or employer during the pandemic. Another 47% found that their work was disrupted by family and household obligations. Similarly, 46% felt overwhelmed by their work-from-home task lists, something that was particularly true for women compared to men. The majority of women lawyers (57%) reported that their work was disrupted and 60% experienced feelings of overwhelm (60%). And again, like women lawyers, lawyers of color were also disproportionately affected in this way with 57% experiencing work disruption and 54% feeling overwhelmed.

Another interesting finding was that solo lawyers reported that they were better able to separate their home and work lives separate during the pandemic compared to lawyers from larger firms who didn’t fare as well in this regard. Only 32% of solo lawyers had difficulty keeping work and home separate compared to more than half of lawyers at firms with 10 or more lawyers (57%) and 41% of small-firm lawyers from firms with 2 to 9 lawyers.

Future facing

Lawyers were also asked for their input on how the pandemic had impacted their perspectives on retirement. For many older lawyers (33%), it significantly changed their retirement plans. For example, over half (53%) reported that they had decided to delay retirement due to COVID-19. On the flip side, almost half of those surveyed(47%) shared that they’d hastened their retirement because of the pandemic.

The future return to the office was a source of conflicting feelings for many of the lawyers surveyed. Large firm lawyers from firms with 250 or more attorneys expressed the most concern about the return to the office. Of those lawyers, 71% indicated that they were concerned about safety issues related to being inside an office building during 2021 and 2022. Areas of concern included lack of ventilation and poor security in public spaces. Similar concerns were reported by lawyers from firms with 100 to 249 lawyers, 68% of whom were reluctant to return to the office, as were 75% of lawyers from firms with 50 to 99 lawyers.

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In comparison, solo and small firm lawyers were less concerned. Only 42% of solo practitioners were reluctant to return to the office, as were just over half (54%) of lawyers from small firms with 2 to 9 attorneys.

How has the pandemic affected your stress levels? What about your perspective on retirement? Do you have concerns about the return to the office? And if so, do they correlate to the responses of lawyers similar to you?

Finally, if you’d like to gain even more insight into how the pandemic will affect the practice of law moving forward, make sure to download this FREE guide: “Adapt or Fail: Industry Changes Law Firms Can’t Afford to Ignore.”

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