Vol. 45, No. 6

Redefining community: Lawyers connect with each other, bars, to fight COVID-19 isolation

By Marilyn Cavicchia

“A reason to get moving in the morning! Great.”
“Made me feel good about being a lawyer during these tough times.”
“Good to know that we are all in this together.”

These are just a few of the many positive member comments that Shawn Holahan has received for a series of COVID-19 webinars she organized this spring—and the kudos continue to roll in even now that the live series has concluded, with the recordings still available.

Holahan, who is practice management counsel and loss prevention counsel at the Louisiana State Bar Association, concluded the series in June in much the same way she began it in April: with a look at e-signatures and the procedures that are required when lawyers and clients can’t meet.

Though each Zoom webinar addressed pragmatic aspects of how to practice law during the pandemic, not all the comments posted in the ongoing chat were questions for the speakers. Many, Holahan recalls, were directed at her and expressed gratitude for the sense of “comfort and purpose” that attendees gained by learning with other members every morning at the same time.

“Many felt a sense of calm,” she recalls, “being connected to the bar and the legal community with topics that mattered as the COVID situation progressed.”

Indeed, the situation has progressed and continues to, as bars, law firms, and others begin to look toward reopening their offices. Bar Leader recently checked back in with a few of the bars (including the LSBA) that were mentioned in a previous article about bars’ role in fostering connection and wellness during the pandemic, to see how things have changed.

From weekly wellness chats to cautious coffee meet-ups

Like the LSBA, the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association is winding down some things and moving toward others, as reopening and connecting in person become more of a possibility. What had been weekly health and wellness online chats are now biweekly—and at press time, the bar was planning its first (socially distanced) in-person events since the pandemic shutdown.

The very first such member get-together, planned by the MCBA Health & Well-Being Programming Committee for a Friday in late June, was a “coffee tailgating event,” according to Liz Novak Henderson, membership and communications manager at the MCBA.

Also in June, that same committee continued the bar’s pandemic-related virtual CLE series with a program specifically addressing the stress related to going back to a law office.

“I think it’s a mixed bag for folks,” Henderson says, “[with] happiness on returning to some semblance of normalcy, but also anxiety. After all, we’re still in the midst of an active pandemic, and making an office safe based on the guidelines can be a lot of work—for any size office.”

Online support, and a new task force

In the earliest days of the pandemic shutdown, the New York State Bar Association established a weekly virtual roundtable to discuss emerging issues—both professional and emotional—with a clinical psychologist also on the call.

Lawyers across the state have been severely impacted by COVID-19, says Libby Coreno, a NYSBA member and past president of the Saratoga County (N.Y) Bar Association who is known as a leader and mentor in the area of lawyer well-being. The nature of the impact has varied depending on area of practice and geographic location, says Coreno, who continues to manage the roundtable each Thursday. For example, she says, a litigator in upstate New York would feel significant stress because of loss of livelihood due to court closures. Others, early on, expressed a different emotion: “Lawyers in New York City would talk about things such as their entire [online] newsfeed being obituaries for the better part of a month and a half.”

A core group of about 100 members continue to participate in the roundtables, depending on their availability, with an average of 50 to 60 members (including a few who live in Europe) at each meeting. One of the most powerful aspects of the weekly roundtables, Coreno says, is that—whether they participate via video or join anonymously with voice only—members have a regularly scheduled opportunity to connect with each other, through the bar.

The importance of community, and the fact that the organized bar can play a role in helping to foster it, also underlies a major new initiative launched by Scott Karson, who became NYSBA president on June 1: the Task Force on Attorney Well-Being. Coreno, with Hon. Karen Peters, co-chairs this task force, which has nine working groups to address specific aspects of well-being along the career continuum from law school through retirement.  

“One of the most important aspects of this task force’s approach, as well as philosophically what we’re trying to establish, is how important community is as an antidote to feelings of isolation,” Coreno says. “We know that isolation has a direct, negative correlation to mental health. As lawyers have become more and more isolated because our culture is becoming more and more isolated, one of the working antidotes is to recreate community.”

Judge Peters notes that this new task force is a logical extension of work the NYSBA has done for decades to promote lawyer well-being: She was the first woman, and the first person not in recovery herself, to serve on the Standing Committee on Lawyer Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, established 40 years ago. “It’s a path that the state bar association has walked for a long time,” she says, “in a very positive and helpful way.”

NYSBA President Karson first envisioned the new task force about a year ago—long before COVID-19—and thought it would focus primarily on lawyers’ physical fitness. In talking with Coreno, Peters, and others, Karson notes, it became clear that well-being should be considered as a holistic concept that includes mental health and many other aspects. Though he hates to call the timing fortuitous, he says, given how the pandemic and its isolation and economic stresses have eroded many lawyers’ sense of well-being, “We were lucky to strike upon this endeavor at a time when it was more needed now than ever before.”

Though there’s no empirical data quite yet regarding the impact of pandemic-related stresses, he adds, “We intuitively believe that lawyers are suffering”—and many NYSBA members have expressed excitement about the task force and eagerness for its final product.

Karson expects that what will emerge from the task force’s work is a “landmark document” that lays out practical steps toward a culture shift in the legal profession, not only in New York state but also across the country. One such step, he adds, may be to incorporate health-related topics not only into law school curricula, but also into CLE requirements. Among his main hopes, he says, is that his bar will help break down the stigma that leads lawyers to suffer in isolation rather than confiding in trusted colleagues or seeking professional help.

Looking forward

Holahan, Henderson, and leaders at the NYSBA all say that some plans and discussions are in motion to help continue what has been one of few upsides to the pandemic—which is their members’ increased desire to connect with others, and to prioritize their own well-being.

“One of the more interesting questions that arose on our [MCBA] Solo  & Small Practice Committee virtual meeting was, ‘What change have you made during the COVID crisis that you think will remain with you after it’s done?’” Henderson says. “Some of the answers were about having more compassion, connecting more with family and friends, and making wellness a priority.”

Holahan says she’s “percolating with ideas” for ways the LSBA can continue to provide the sense of community that lawyers need—especially as her area is now approaching hurricane season. “I hear a clear sense of optimism,” she adds, “that COVID hit a reset button for everybody, and that how law will be practiced in the future will be forever changed, in a good way.”

As lawyers begin to return to their offices, Coreno says, it will be impossible for them to completely resume their old patterns—because both they and the world around them has been so fundamentally changed by the pandemic. She hopes that the NYSBA members who have been participating in the wellness roundtables will continue to connect with each other, and to hold on to some of the “capital-T truths” that have emerged regarding the need to talk openly and even be vulnerable with other lawyers.

Members have told Coreno that they carve out the time each week because it’s one hour in which they can share their experiences, collect helpful resources and insights, and not be shamed or judged. While COVID-19 opened the door for this type of conversation, Coreno says, it’s something that has been needed in the profession for a long time before that.

“All that it really is,” she believes, “is an expanded definition of ‘community.’”

(Editor's note: Some bar leaders and staff members interviewed for this article said that their bar members were also seeking a sense of community and purpose after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting nationwide discussion of racial inequity. For example, Coreno and Peters noted that lawyers' well-being encompasses a concern for humanity and a desire to help ensure fairness for all. Karson said that in addition to the well-being task force referenced in this article, he had also recently established the NYSBA Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform. The September-October 2020 issue of Bar Leader will offer more details about this task force and about other efforts by bars across the country to address racial inequity in light of the incidents and responses that occurred this spring and summer.)