May 20, 2020 Chair's Column

Reaching Out: The Legal Community’s Response to a Pandemic

By Stephanie A. Scharf

It is no doubt an understatement to say that these are trying times. Most of us are adjusting to COVID-19 with a mixture of anxiety and resilience. We worry about our own health and that of our loved ones, colleagues, and friends. We struggle to adapt to a lifestyle where a trip to the grocery store seems at once a dangerous gamble and an extravagant luxury. Lawyers have some of the highest rates of mental health concerns among U.S. occupations, but we’re also adept at pivoting when needed and adapting to changing circumstances.

When you read this column, you have probably been working from home for six weeks or more. Remote work and flexible schedules have received mixed reviews in the legal profession for some time, especially as they relate to the success of women, who bear the much greater brunt of responsibility for childcare, household activities, and aging parents. A lesson learned from recent events is that almost everyone in the profession now understands the efficacies and benefits of working remotely, as well as the types of support and resources it takes to do so successfully. Hopefully, a request to work from home will no longer throw a woman’s capabilities into doubt or make her colleagues question her connectedness to her team.

One technology that has jumped to the forefront is video conferencing. Anne Brafford, JD, MAPP, a former BigLaw partner who now specializes in lawyer well-being, recommends that lawyers begin video calls with colleagues and clients with an expression of gratitude or appreciation. That simple emotional connection can go a long way to mitigate the overall anxiety and strangeness of sheltering in place. Most of us are used to interacting in person on an everyday basis, from a walk down the hall to chat with a colleague to a quick lunch with a friend, or the more formal business meetings with clients and colleagues to make decisions about a case or a deal or a change in regulations. Acknowledging the value of emotional connections—that it’s not “just the facts, ma’am”—goes a long way to keep us engaged and positive about our work and helps us adapt to today’s new normal.

In my Perspectives column a few months ago, I wrote about the benefits of collaboration. Now more than ever, team members depend on each other to share information, expertise, and emotional support. In my boutique law firm, we have been holding twice-weekly video calls with all the lawyers, paralegals, and administrative staff just to “chat.” Last week, we had a “meet the dog” call, where we all introduced our four-legged family members to each other (cats were welcome as well). In other times, these calls might have seemed frivolous, but now more personal ways of knowing how folks are doing seem the right thing to do.

We don’t yet know exactly how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out. Many of us have lost family or friends to COVID-19. But this has also been a time that has drawn people together through different ways of getting to know each other and of finding the good that can come out of the awfully bad.

As I write this column in mid-April for publication in mid-May, I sincerely hope that by the time of publication, all of us will be on a healthy and safe path to the future.

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By Stephanie A. Scharf

Stephanie A. Scharf is a founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago. She is chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chairs the ABA President Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law.