How Has The Covid-19 Pandemic Affected The Legal Profession?

5 key takeaways from a new report, based on a survey of thousands of lawyers across the country.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected lawyers and the legal profession? We all have our anecdotes, but now we have actual data.

Between September 30 and October 11, 2020, the American Bar Association (ABA) surveyed more than 4,200 ABA members across the country. On Thursday, the ABA released a 140-page report, its third annual Profile of the Legal Profession, which included extensive discussion of how the pandemic has affected attorneys. I learned about the report when I participated in an ABA webinar yesterday about returning to the office, and a summary of the report that preceded our discussion piqued my interest.

I’d now like to share some highlights with you. The bottom lines aren’t too surprising, but it’s interesting to quantify some of the phenomena that we’ve anecdotally observed over the past 16 months and to explore both causes and implications.

1. Many lawyers have been working remotely during the pandemic—but maybe not as many as you might think.

Most lawyers (54%) said they were working from home close to 100% of the time. Not surprisingly, the vast majority (73%) said they missed seeing people at the office. More significantly, a majority (51%) said they felt it was hard to keep home and work separate.

I actually expected that first number to be higher, but that might reflect my Biglaw bias. The survey included everyone from solo practitioners to Biglaw lawyers, and I suspect that solos and small-firm lawyers have been back in the office to a much higher degree than Biglaw lawyers, perhaps because of the demands or expectations of their clients.

Remote work has come naturally to Biglaw attorneys working for large companies, whose own in-house legal departments have often been remote as well. But lawyers serving different clients might be more likely to work from the office, which might explain why the work-from-home number isn’t higher than 54 percent. For example, when my husband and I closed on our house in April, we attended the closing at our real estate lawyer’s office, where she has been working during most of the pandemic.

The moderator of my ABA panel yesterday, Joey Jackson, said that his six-lawyer firm has been back in the office for quite some time as well. Why? Most of their clients are labor unions, whose workers have been deemed essential—and if their clients are going into the workplace, Jackson and his colleagues feel that they should as well.

2. The pandemic has been an especially challenging period for women and minority lawyers.

Nearly half of all lawyers (49%) said they felt disengaged from their firm or employer during the pandemic, found work disrupted by family and household obligations (47%) and felt overwhelmed by all the things they have to do (46%). Again, that was especially true for women, who were much more likely to find their work disrupted (57%) and feel overwhelmed (60%), and lawyers of color who found work disrupted (57%) and felt overwhelmed (54%).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. On women lawyers, another finding of the survey was that female lawyers were more likely to live with dependent children than male lawyers (42 percent versus 30 percent), as well as three times as likely to take on additional child-care responsibilities.

Remote work can be a blessing and a curse for lawyers who are working parents. On the one hand, the flexibility allows us to balance our responsibilities in ways that might not be possible if we had to go into the office every day. On the other hand, trying to work from home while also caring for kids is no easy feat (as I know all too well, given how often our son makes cameos on my Zoom calls). The challenge for both employers and working parents is how to secure the benefits of virtual work while avoiding or minimizing the drawbacks.

On lawyers of color, we’ve all seen the research indicating that the pandemic has taken a much greater toll on minority groups. So it shouldn’t shock anyone to see that lawyers of color have been finding this period, which also included the murder of George Floyd and other horrific acts of violence against Black Americans, to be a particularly difficult time.

3. The pandemic affected many lawyers’ retirement plans—but in different ways for different lawyers.

One-third of older lawyers (33%) said the pandemic changed their retirement plans. Among those lawyers, more than half (53%) said the pandemic delayed retirement. Just under half (47%) said it hastened their retirement.

This makes sense to me as well, although I was a little surprised at how even the split was between lawyers who moved up their retirement and lawyers who postponed it. Some representative comments from lawyers who retired earlier than planned:

  • The pandemic “forced a partial retirement, whether I could afford it or not.”

  • “The pandemic forced me to think about whether I wanted to do this anymore. Answer: NO.”

And from lawyers who plan to retire later than planned:

  • “It has made me rethink retirement altogether. I don’t think I can be home all the time.”

  • “Because it became more apparent that I could work remotely, I think it has made me more likely to just slow down a bit rather than retire.”

When I interviewed David Boies last year, he said basically the same thing. Travel was one of the most draining aspects of his pre-pandemic career. Less travel is less exhausting, takes less of a toll on his health, and involves less time away from his family. So while he might start slowing down a bit, he’s not inclined to retire, given that his work has becoming less taxing—and I suspect that he’s not alone.

4. Older lawyers have gotten more proficient with technology than you might think, thanks in part to the pandemic.

Contrary to stereotype, most lawyers who are 62 or older said they were comfortable with new technology introduced during the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters (73%) said they had to learn new technology to continue working or to keep in contact with others, and the vast majority (79%) said they were somewhat comfortable or extremely comfortable with that technology.

So maybe it’s time to retire the stereotype of the old partners who harass the poor help desk with amusingly stupid requests. Indeed, one of the silver linings to the pandemic cloud is how it has forced all of us, young and old alike, to become more proficient and comfortable with important technological tools. This increased knowledge of (and comfort with) technology will remain with us, long after the pandemic has (hopefully) receded into the past.

5. Biglaw lawyers have been an anxious bunch during the past 16 months.

[M]ore than half of lawyers at big firms of 250+ attorneys said they were more worried about pay cuts than a year earlier (52%). That is consistent with the fears of lawyers at firms of 100 to 249 lawyers (51%). The worry about pay cuts was less among lawyers at small offices of two to five lawyers (28%) and offices with six to nine lawyers (35%).

More than one-third of lawyers at large firms with 250 or more lawyers (35%) also said they were more worried about being laid off or furloughed than a year earlier. That’s nearly twice the rate as lawyers in offices with two to nine lawyers (18%).

This surprised me a little, given that the survey went out in September and October of last year—after the darkest days of the recession, after many firms had reversed their Covid cuts, and around the time that Cooley kicked off the special bonus trend.

But here’s one possible explanation. The ABA survey’s firm-size category tops out at firms of 250+ lawyers, and these firms are a diverse bunch, including many more firms than the Am Law 100 firms that did so well last year. My suspicion is that firms that are still large in size, but below that top tier in terms of profitability and prestige, didn’t fare quite as well.

And there is data to support this. We know that the Am Law 200 firms, the firms ranked #101 to #200 by revenue, didn’t do as well financially last year as the Am Law 100 firms, the firms ranked #1 to #100. And my guess is that firms below the Am Law 200—many of them firms of more than 250 lawyers, but not exactly the Kirklands and Lathams of the world—did even worse. This would explain why so many of their attorneys were worried about compensation cuts and layoffs, while their colleagues at Am Law 100 firms were getting pandemic bonuses.

Why were lawyers at small firms less worried about pay cuts and furloughs than lawyers at large firms? In general, small firms do a better job than big firms of keeping their employees informed about how things are going—and when employees are kept in the loop, they tend to worry less about what might happen to them.

These are just a few highlights from the ABA’s much broader report, which covers such subjects as the demographics of the legal profession, trends in attorney compensation, the evolution of legal education, diversity and inclusion, and lawyer well-being. Feel free to check out the entire report, which offers an interesting snapshot of our profession during this challenging and unusual point in its history, and thanks to the ABA for undertaking and sharing this important research.