July 30, 2020 6 minutes to read ∙ 1300 words

A Lawyer Assistance Clinician’s Experience During the COVID-19 Upheaval

By Jeffrey Fortgang

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A span of 22 years on the clinical staff of Massachusetts Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) has given me the opportunity for genuine conversations with a great many lawyers working in a number of settings and types of law, but a majority in solo practice. During that time, we all endured and survived developments such as Y2K (that one was kind of a bust after much anticipatory worry), 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008 (bringing an influx of the newly unemployed), and now a sudden but sustained immersion in two unexpected phenomena: COVID-19 and all it entails, and a heightened and vivid awareness of what many of us knew but somehow didn’t fully see about systemic racism.

One way to tap into the experience of attorneys during the current period of unanticipated upheaval has been the online video support/discussion groups that I’ve been facilitating. Two of them are monthly groups that began before we ever heard of COVID-19: a long-standing group for solo practitioners who sought more ways to connect with others in the same boat, and a more recently formed group for immigration lawyers. In addition, at the point in early March when the COVID-19 shutdown abruptly descended on us all, bringing for me a quick farewell to the trolley/subway and hello to Zooming from home, I hurriedly decided to start a weekly “Open Connection” group, in which any Massachusetts attorney who felt a desire, from a suddenly greater degree of isolation, to connect with peers could “tune in” and hold virtual hands with others in the same position.

When the Open Connection group began, it was kind of a shout-out to the virtual wilderness on the part of those, including me, who attended: “I’m here! Are you there? What’s going on?” There was sharing of information about the disease and our realistic fears, and particularly discussion about how (and if) one would continue to practice law in a homebound world. There was a significant void of information and direction, and, where guidance or instruction were provided by the powers that be, they seemed to change every week (perhaps especially for immigration lawyers, who had already been dealing with constantly changing directives). Real estate lawyers were being required to continue providing in-person services that now felt like taking their lives in their hands. Estate lawyers initially had no means of getting signatures without personal contact. Lawyers handling matters such as special education advocacy and landlord-tenant disputes suddenly faced a steep drop in activity and income. Lawyers who worked at larger firms or in agencies felt cut off from their work communities and the structure of the office environment. Although everyone ran headlong toward Zoom (I’m not sure how that platform was elected over its competition, but fortunately that’s the one we were already using at LCL), it was not at all the same experience as spending time together in conference rooms and colleagues’ offices. Those who lived alone felt the unforeseen isolation most acutely. Many found themselves with less energy and motivation. The absence of the usual calendar-based demands and deadlines, for some, meant a decline in productivity and focus.

On the other hand, for a number of lawyers, more time with themselves and away from work provided fertile ground for more introspection and even gratitude, as they took a look at their lives from a new vantage point. Amid all the pain, fear, and disruption of the pandemic, this seemed like a good development. When we LCL staff talk or write about the unique stresses and barriers to well-being that typify legal professionals, we describe a culture that emphasizes being the knower, serving others, accumulating billable hours, etc., often at the expense of an internal focus. Those attorneys whose visits to us are their first foray into the mental health world often seem to have little idea of their own feelings and needs; their focus is predominantly on a detailed awareness of what is going on with their clients and cases. Lawyers can also acquire a negative skew: they learn to critically analyze situations and documents for what is wrong—a useful skill for the job, but unfortunately a life perspective that tends to generate a depressive view of the world. (My colleague Dr. Shawn Healy and I discuss these factors in our book, The Full Weight of the Law: How Legal Professionals Can Recognize and Rebound from Depression.) So, to the extent that this interruption of life as we knew it provided a higher perspective and a shift from what’s wrong to what has been right and worth preserving, that may have been at least a something of a silver lining.

Urgency of participation in the Open Connection group gradually subsided (while attendance continued as before in the preexisting groups), as we all caught our breath in this new reality and reconnected virtually with friends, colleagues, and extended family, our more natural affiliations. We discussed ways that lawyers were finding to carry on their practices (or, in some fields, to seek loans or unemployment compensation). Some shared their dismay about people on the street (as many of us took up long walks as a substitute for commuting and gyms) who were not wearing masks. One lawyer, on the other hand, expressed irritation at others for not understanding that some people have medical conditions that make mask-wearing too difficult.

As the weeks wore on and COVID-19 life became the “new normal,” I was hearing more about the dilemmas of lawyers with children at home, seeking to figure out how to carry on the jobs of working attorney, parent, and home educator at the same time—not really possible to do without neglecting something. Perspectives shifted, as, for example, discussions of professional missteps that could potentially lead to suspension of practice were to some extent replaced by concerns for choices that could lead to suspension of life itself.

Then came the George Floyd tragedy. We had all, I think, been aware of long-standing and distressing inequities in our policing, legal, and correctional systems, but in this instant, when we were all home and glued to cable news, we were immersed in a harsh, unbearable reality, and we worried about where things would/should go from there. COVID-19, for the moment, took a back seat, and those who had been sheltering firmly in place began to consider joining public protests, weighing the wish to maximize safety against the sense of duty to do show solidarity with victims of racism and abuse of power. Lawyers in my groups, most of them white, were now more inclined to realize that some of their recent complaints about the many COVID-related annoyances, such as a sense that some court systems could not get their acts together, were the gripes of those in a position of privilege. There was some sense of not knowing what reactions to share on this sensitive subject, and gradually discussion returned to the world of practice. Some of those in attendance described being flooded with new work demands as life began to move forward again, clients ready to pursue cases, courts inching toward something vaguely approaching business as usual—back to work, though not in a familiar way. With that, the Open Connection group completed its voyage, the other groups began to resemble their pre-COVID selves, and the lawyers seemed to find their bearings.

Nevertheless, these very strange months have been an opportunity to recognize the value, for attorneys, of taking some time to shift from cases and billable hours to attunement to feelings, values, and mission, of setting limits, finding balance, maintaining supportive connections with others, and remembering that lawyers are human beings.

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Jeffrey Fortgang, Ph.D. (drjeff@lclma.org), is a clinical psychologist at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, the Boston-based lawyer assistance program providing clinical consultations and support/discussion groups to law students, lawyers, and judges.

Published in GPSolo eReport, Volume 9, Number 12, July 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.