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Vol. 46, No. 3

Bars’ COVID-19 surveys offer a snapshot of how lawyers are faring, what they need most

Since March 2020, it’s been clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a significant impact on all of our lives. As it has continued, it also became clear that many of us underestimated what that impact would be, and how long it would last.

In recent months, several bars have conducted surveys of their members, to try to quantify and understand the pandemic’s effects on the legal profession, on lawyers’ lives, and on access to justice. Here is a list (not comprehensive) of bars that have completed their surveys and tabulated the results. Any that are linked have made their reports (or select highlights) publicly available; those that are not linked are for internal use by the bar, are behind a pay wall, or are available by request:

Some other bars plan to conduct this type of survey or have done so but are not yet ready to share their results. If your bar would like assistance with a COVID-19 survey, the ABA Division for Bar Services has a set of sample questions (scroll down to “For Your Organization”) available at no cost. For a small fee, Bar Services can also create and distribute your survey, compile the results, and prepare a report.  

What follows is a look at some key themes that have emerged from the survey reports that are currently available.

Cash flow and ability to make a living

The economic impact of COVID-19 was consistently mentioned as a major issue, both as an immediate concern and for the three to six months after the surveys were conducted. In several surveys that asked lawyers to indicate their top concerns, most respondents indicated “cash flow,” “ability to make a living,” or a similar answer (depending on how the survey was phrased). For example, in one bar's survey, when lawyers were given a list of issues and asked to indicate where they were on a scale from 1 (“Not at all concerned”) to 5 (“Extremely concerned”), 58 percent ranked this issue as either a 5 or a 4. 

In Florida, 35 percent of all respondents reported that their weekly billable hours had decreased in the past two months. Another 30 percent said their billable hours had remained the same, and 12 percent said they had increased. In Michigan, compensation was the most frequent response to a question about what lawyers and law firms had adjusted because of COVID-19. A comment from a respondent to the Tennessee Bar Association survey put a fine point on the economic challenge. It was difficult, this respondent said, to impress upon clients that paying their bills for legal services should remain a priority even with everything else going on.

Court operations

Another common area of concern was how courts are operating during COVID-19. The feeling didn’t seem to be that courts should immediately resume in-person operations, however. For example, 73 percent of the respondents to The Florida Bar survey said that remote court operations should continue. Meanwhile, members of the Federal Bar Association indicated that inconsistencies from one court to another, and staying current with changes in court policies, were their biggest pandemic-related challenge. (Indeed, these inconsistencies and the need to stay current ranked high on the list of concerns in several other bars' surveys as well.) Also, though most FBA respondents were satisfied with other types of remote court proceedings, a majority (59 percent) said they were not comfortable with the idea of remote jury trials. Regarding in-person trials while pandemic protocols are still in place, a slight majority of respondents (53 percent) were concerned about the ability to judge the credibility of witnesses who were wearing masks.

Concerns about masks—and social distancing—in courthouses also emerged in the ABA task force survey, whose respondents also noted that both of these public health measures present difficulty for those who are hard of hearing. Respondents to this survey also pointed out a number of procedural difficulties that limit access to the courts during the pandemic. For example, many rural courts have simply shut down, and those that are operating remotely may not have adequate technology to do so—and regardless of geographic location, many low-income clients and pro se litigants lack sufficient technology and bandwidth.

Physical and mental health

Lawyer health and wellness, as well as concern for family members’ well-being, was indicated as being important by many survey respondents, but it appears to be something of a background issue, taking a backseat to some of the other concerns. In New Hampshire, however, 8 percent of respondents indicated that it was their biggest concern during the pandemic, even more so than finances, client management, or court issues. At another bar, 19 percent of respondents said they were “Extremely concerned” about their wellness and increased stress. With “Extremely concerned” as 5 and “Not at all concerned” as 1, another 26 percent indicated that their level of concern about wellness and stress was at 4.

The Vermont Bar Association survey delved especially deeply into health-related issues, including emotional responses prompted by the pandemic. For example:

  • Almost 70 percent of respondents to this question said the pandemic made them feel isolated.
  • About 46 percent said it made them depressed.
  • A little more than 60 percent said they were worried or afraid because of the pandemic.
  • More than 32 percent said it made them angry.

(Another bar that has focused on lawyer well-being during the pandemic is the New York State Bar Association; at press time, its survey had recently closed and preliminary findings were expected to be released soon.) 

Embracing new technology

Understandably—and related to concerns about both client management and court operations—technology was on a lot of survey respondents’ minds. Several respondents to the Tennessee Bar Association survey noted some frustrations with remote work, such as missing the scanners and printers at their regular office, cumbersome security procedures (and glitches) in using their home computers and webcams, and burdensome new processes for things that used to be simple—such as having documents notarized.

Several in Tennessee said that they were already accustomed to some amount of remote work but that other factors have made this more difficult during the pandemic. For example, one said that remote work was not the issue, but a dramatic reduction in clients was; another said their work was going reasonably well from a functional standpoint but that they missed interaction with other lawyers, clients, and court personnel; and another indicated that a tornado around the same time as the start of the pandemic shutdown badly affected their infrastructure, including internet reliability, for several days.

When asked what type of training and educational topics would be most useful to themselves and their teams, many respondents to the State Bar of Michigan survey selected options (they were allowed up to five) that involve technology. For example:

  • Virtual courtroom practice, 58.36 percent;
  • new technology tools like Zoom and WebEx (usage of and privacy concerns), 48.61 percent;
  • how to effectively practice law remotely, 48.09 percent;
  • how to engage virtually with new clients, 38.34 percent; and
  • switching to a paperless office, 28.23 percent.

A consistent theme both in and outside of the legal profession in recent months has been that, after a forced experiment with new technologies, some of these new procedures and tools were likely to remain indefinitely. The Florida Bar asked its survey respondents to consider that idea in more detail. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they thought some changes brought about by the pandemic would be permanent. For example:

  • 85 percent (of the 75 percent) said remote working policies would likely see permanent change;
  • 84 percent cited technological resources used by the courts;
  • 81 percent expected permanent change to technological resources used by firms or legal offices; and
  • 60 percent expected there will be an increased requirement for technology skills on hiring.

In a survey that focused mostly on what members need during the pandemic and how well the bar has provided it, members of the Maryland State Bar Association echoed the idea that the future will involve a hybrid of virtual and in-person opportunities. Online MSBA meetings and events had been attended by 60 percent of respondents. More than 62 percent of all respondents selected this statement: “Virtual meetings and virtual learning are critical and should not be diminished even when in-person meetings are possible.” Only about 23 percent indicated a preference for in-person meetings and learning whenever possible, with others saying they had no format preference as long as the content was compelling, and a much smaller percentage (less than 3 percent) saying they would attend in person if the MSBA had more events near them.

Responses to open-ended questions about the MSBA’s virtual programming during the pandemic convey a positive tone that might sound familiar to other bars, too:

  • “Made the impossible possible, and the possible more convenient.”
  • “Virtual learning is essential to the adaptive environment attorneys are in now and will be in the future.”
  • “I don’t attend MSBA events except for CLE offerings, as travel time is prohibitive. Virtual offerings save me an incredible amount of time and make attending more events possible.”