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February 25, 2022 Article

Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

Strategies to increase happiness and resiliency in the workplace by making the most of a post-pandemic landscape.

By Charla Bizios Stevens
If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that life is unpredictable, and we must live it on our own terms.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that life is unpredictable, and we must live it on our own terms.

Pexels | riciardus

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the legal industry has faced numerous challenges in running its organizations seamlessly and efficiently. From remote work to Zoom meetings and benefits for home schooling under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the world of legal practice changed, and we all needed to change with it.

Prior to 2020, we were beginning to understand that a significant percentage of lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals were struggling with anxiety, depression, workaholism, and substance abuse disorders. The suicide rates were alarming. Lawyers assistance programs led by the ABA Commission on Lawyers Assistance Programs (COLAP) discussed the need for the profession to redouble its efforts to improve the mental health and well-being of its members. COLAP asked law firms and legal departments to sign the ABA pledge affirming their commitment to adopt and prioritize a seven-point framework to improve lawyer well-being.

Once COVID-19 arrived, the depth and breadth of the problem became clear to doubters, and many who had not previously struggled experienced how the fear, uncertainty, and isolation could have an impact on mental health. As the pandemic has lingered and businesses attempt to return to some level of normalcy, including a return to the office, there are some lessons we have learned that we can hope will bring systemic change to a profession that has resisted it for decades.

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

Newer lawyers tried to make the point that work could be done efficiently from anywhere long before the pandemic. Parents of young children emphasized that they could work flexible hours and meet the needs of their families and their clients. Institutions resisted. COVID-19 taught us that we could work remotely, flexibly, and differently and still be efficient and effective. Out of necessity came the realization that not everyone needed to be in the office every day. With the significant numbers of associates and even partners being willing to change firms and even careers, law firms will need to allow some level of remote work to be competitive in the battle for talent. Some firms are choosing to be entirely virtual; others are allowing at least a day or two of remote work per week. All firms will need to assess what works best for them, their clients, and their employees; but remote work has to be part of the menu, and all employees should be included in the discussion. Why?

One Size Does Not Fit All

It would be a mistake for any firm or legal department to assume that one solution works for all; generalizing based on age or gender would be a mistake. Not all millennials are happy to work at home or at the local Starbucks. Some do not have adequate technology or private workspace. Others crave the interaction with colleagues that working in the office provides. Some need more one-on-one time with supervisors and mentors. Similarly, not all baby boomers are itching to get back into the office. Many have discovered a new level of productivity with quiet time in a home workspace. Not all despise Zoom meetings. Some are thankful for the time savings from avoiding a two-hour commute.

The most significant concerns about remote work are the loss of training opportunities for newer associates and the possible loss of culture and cohesiveness. For that reason, communication is key. Associates, directors, and firm management must learn what each need in terms of connectivity and technology for all to be successful. Surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one discussions can all be useful in gathering data to support policy decisions on remote work. Also important to keep in mind is the fact that these needs many change over time, and the firm and individuals may need to adapt. None of us needs the same things from one another that we needed in the early days of the pandemic, and all should be prepared to be flexible.

Technology Can Be Our Friend . . . and Our Enemy

We have known for a long time that technology brings as many challenges as improvements to our lives. Smartphones are a remarkable tool allowing 24/7 connectivity and access to information, but the inability to become untethered from one’s device can be a curse. Similarly, Zoom was a lifesaver early in the pandemic, allowing us to engage in colleague and client meetings and to conduct remote depositions and mediations. It even fulfilled our need for social and family time with virtual happy hours, fundraising events, and birthday parties. As is typical, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

It is important for individuals and work groups to assess their relationships with technology and to be clear about expectations. Working remotely blended work and home in ways that many had not previously experienced. If it has not already been done, now is a good time for practice groups and other colleague groups to assess which meetings are needed and which are not. Are we having meetings for the sake of meetings, or do we have meaningful things to discuss? What expectations do we have for hearing back from one another whether by response to email, phone call, or text? Being clear about this eliminates unnecessary stress.

The Stigma Is Still Very Real

One of the most prevalent themes in the ABA’s work on mental health and well-being is that there is significant fear of asking for help or admitting any weakness out of concern that it will permanently derail an attorney’s career. To be sure, there are more conversations around the topic of mental health and substance use, and the data show that younger people and women are more willing to discuss such issues, at least among each other.

However, it is quite clear in my experience that even younger female attorneys (the group one might expect to be the most forthcoming) are reluctant to discuss with their supervisors the mental health issues of family members for whom they are caring (children, spouses, parents) and are even less likely to bring up their own problems. The concern is sometimes that the supervisor will look at them differently, but it is sometimes that the supervisor will be “too nice” and not give them challenging assignments because of their family or personal situations. Although well intentioned, this can be a form of benign discrimination that discourages people from coming forward.

Again, the best way to address the issue of stigma is with regular, open communication. Bringing in speakers is helpful, but speaking to one another is better. Supervisors sharing their own struggles in a candid way can go a long way toward building the trust that is needed for one to come forward to ask for help or an accommodation.

We Need to Set Our Own Boundaries

As boundaries have become even more blurred through the pandemic, it is more critical than ever before to set and maintain our own boundaries. Out-of-office messages, time away from devices, taking days off and vacations, working a set schedule, and keeping work time separate from personal time are all ways in which one can improve one’s mental health and resilience to compete and thrive in a very challenging profession. Whether clients, coworkers, friends, or family members, each is important; and relationships with each need to be nurtured to thrive. However, one person cannot nurture all at the same time while caring for one’s own needs. It is of course impossible to compartmentalize and keep each aspect of a life separate and distinct, but each of us must set our priorities and maintain the boundaries that work best for us. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that life is unpredictable, and we must live it on our own terms.

The ABA has a wealth of resources for law firms and individuals when it comes to learning about mental health and well-being to better care for oneself and others. Check them out on the Mental Health Resources for the Legal Profession webpage of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.

Charla Bizios Stevens is a member of the Litigation Section Council and Mental Health and Wellness Task Force. Having retired from the full-time practice of law, she is now principal at Charla Stevens Consulting, LLC, in Bedford, New Hampshire.

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