COVID-19

How It Affected Lawyers

The pandemic has changed the way lawyers work – perhaps permanently. Almost a year and a half after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, many lawyers were still working from home and many courts still were holding hearings online.

But the pandemic did not affect everyone equally. To gauge the pandemic’s impact, the American Bar Association Practice Forward group surveyed more than 4,200 ABA members between Sept. 30 and Oct. 11, 2020.

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. That was especially true for women (63%) and lawyers of color (62%).

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%).

Why the difference between men and women? The survey found that female lawyers were more likely to live with dependent children than male lawyers (42% versus 30%). What’s more, female lawyers were nearly three times as likely to take on additional child care responsibilities during the pandemic (14% for women versus 5% for men).

Overall, 40% of all lawyers said they felt stress about work during the pandemic – but stress was reported by 52% of women versus 34% of men, and 48% of lawyers of color.

Lawyer Retirement

In some ways, the pandemic hit older lawyers’ practices hard — particularly on the matter of retirement.

To gauge how the pandemic affected older lawyers, we compared results from the ABA Practice Forward survey for lawyers who are 62 and older (1,645 completed the survey) to lawyers who are 61 and younger (2,193 completed the survey). In addition, the Senior Lawyers Division and the Media Relations & Strategic Communications Division conducted a supplementary survey of 1,368 senior lawyers in March 2021.

The most significant finding: 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.

Loss of income may have been a factor. More than a third of all older lawyers (36%) said they made less money during the pandemic, while only 18% said they made more money. A plurality of 47% said their income was about the same.

Among those who said the pandemic hastened retirement, several explained their reasons in writing. Among them:

The pandemic made me realize life is short, perhaps I should pull the plug while I can.

It 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.

Among those who said they delayed retirement were these comments:

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.

It has made me re-think retirement altogether. I don’t think I can be home all the time.

It enabled me to work remotely from Florida and made the retirement transition easier.

Finally, there was this comment from a lawyer in a small private practice on why the pandemic did not affect her retirement plan:

I will be damned if this stupid pandemic forces me to retire earlier than I want to!

Stress on Senior Lawyers

Like all lawyers, most older attorneys (62%) who are 62 or older missed seeing people at the office. But fewer older lawyers experienced additional work stress during the pandemic compared with younger lawyers (30% versus 49%), fewer felt overwhelmed by work (30% versus 55%) and fewer felt that the day never seems to end (27% versus 50%), according to the Practice Forward survey.

Older lawyers also said they were less worried than younger lawyers about how the pandemic will affect their careers. Only 4% said they were more worried about career advancement than a year ago compared with 23% of younger lawyers. Similarly, only 23% of older lawyers said they were more worried than a year ago about pay cuts compared to 46% of younger lawyers. And just 12% of older lawyers said they were more worried than a year ago about layoffs or furloughs compared to 30% of younger lawyers.

Likewise, older lawyers reported less stress about returning to the office after the pandemic. One-quarter of older lawyers (25%) said they were concerned about inadequate safety protocols by their employers when they return, compared to 38% of younger lawyers. And while roughly half of older lawyers (52%) said they were concerned that being inside an office will not be safe, that compared to 65% of younger lawyers.

Finally, few older lawyers were worried about reprisals for reacting to safety issues. Just 11% said they worry about layoffs or furloughs if they do not return to the office when asked, compared with 26% of younger lawyers.

What accounts for this difference between older and younger lawyers? Two likely explanations: Older lawyers were more likely to be solo practitioners (30% of older lawyers versus 17% of younger lawyers) and they were much less likely to live with children (13% of older lawyers versus 55% of younger lawyers).

Senior Lawyers–Technology, Volunteering, Social Justice

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. Fewer than 1 in 5 (19%) said they found tech support inadequate while working remotely.

Meanwhile, most older lawyers said the pandemic had not changed their desire to do pro bono work: 62% said the pandemic made them neither more likely nor less likely to do pro bono work. (But 23% said they were less likely and 15% said they were more likely.) That’s important because older lawyers, on average, do more pro bono work than younger lawyers. (See the Pro Bono chapter for details.)

Finally, a majority of older lawyers in the Practice Forward survey (53%) said they were having conversations with colleagues about racial justice issues more often than they did a year earlier. And a third of those older lawyers (34%) said the racial justice conversations have been easier than a year ago. Only 10% said the conversations were harder.

Fears of Big-Firm Lawyers

Lawyers at large law firms were much more worried about returning to the office after the pandemic than lawyers at smaller firms, according to the ABA Practice Forward survey. They also worry about the consequences of reporting those fears to their employers.

Large-firm lawyers were also more worried about furloughs, layoffs and pay cuts than smaller-firm lawyers, according to the survey of more than 4,200 ABA members conducted Sept. 30 to Oct. 11, 2020.

Nearly 3 out of 4 attorneys (71%) at large firms with 250 or more lawyers said they were concerned that being inside an office building for a working day will not be safe in 2021 and 2022 for various reasons, including lack of good ventilation and poor security in public spaces. Similar percentages of lawyers expressed the same concerns at firms with 100 to 249 lawyers (68%) and firms with 50-99 lawyers (75%).

At the opposite extreme, only 42% of solo practitioners expressed the same concern, as did a slight majority of lawyers in offices with two to nine attorneys (54%).

More than 1 out of 4 lawyers (29%) in firms with 250 lawyers or more said they were worried about expressing health and safety concerns to their employers. Nearly half (47%) said they were concerned that if they do not return to work in the office when asked, they will be viewed as not committed to the firm. And 28% said they were concerned that they will be fired or furloughed if they do not return to the office when asked.

Finally, more 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%).

Solo Practitioners

Solo practitioners adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic better than most other lawyers, according to the ABA Practice Forward survey.

In general, the survey showed solo lawyers worked fewer hours than other lawyers. Just one-third of solo practitioners (34%) said they worked more than 40 hours a week, compared with 68% of lawyers in big firms with 250 or more attorneys and 60% of lawyers in small firms with two to nine lawyers.

During the pandemic, solo practitioners were more likely to cut down the number of hours worked and more likely to take time off. In the survey, 40% of solo attorneys said they worked fewer hours during the pandemic, compared with 27% of small-firm attorneys and 28% of attorneys in offices with 10 or more lawyers.

Also, nearly half of lawyers at larger firms of 10 or more attorneys (48%) said they had more trouble taking time off during the pandemic than a year earlier. For solo lawyers, it was just 32% and for small-firm lawyers 40%.

Finally, solo practitioners reported they were better able to keep their home and work lives separate during the pandemic. More than half of lawyers at firms with 10 or more lawyers (57%) said they found it hard to keep home and work separate, but that was true for only 41% of small-firm lawyers and 32% of solo attorneys.

Firm size did not make a difference with stress and feeling overwhelmed during the pandemic, according to the survey.