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February 18, 2021

‘Sobering’ COVID survey portends exodus from profession

Lawyers amid the COVID-19 pandemic feel overwhelmed by the pressures of their work — especially women with children and lawyers of color — with many considering leaving the legal profession, according to a new survey by the American Bar Association.

Findings from the national survey of 4,400 ABA members were presented Feb. 17 at the webinar, “Practice Forward: State-of-the-Art Best Practices for a Profession Impacted by the Pandemic,” which was part of the 2021 ABA Virtual Midyear Meeting

The survey, one of the largest ever by the ABA, was conducted in fall 2020 to learn about the current and future expectations of practicing lawyers as well as their concerns, needs and goals moving forward. The ABA commissioned the survey to understand how the pandemic has prompted legal employers to revise their policies and procedures; how diversity, equity and inclusion programs have been affected; and what resources are needed by attorneys as they continue to work.

While working remotely appeals to most lawyers, “Many members feel completely overwhelmed with all they have to do,” said Stephanie Scharf of the Chicago-based Red Bee Group, which designed and managed the survey. They worry about employer support, client access, developing business and meeting billable hour requirements. High levels of stress are particularly experienced by women with young children, Scharf said, who often felt overlooked for assignments and worried that their employers viewed them as not committed to their work. Women also are working a significantly higher proportion of their hours from home than men.

Co-presenter Roberta Liebenberg of the Red Bee Group said women want more supportive, engaged and empathetic employers who are flexible and supportive. Women lawyers also want more comprehensive plans for sick and family leave, and subsidies for child care, tutoring and family care.

“The data is very sobering,” Liebenberg said, adding that the findings may forecast an exodus from the profession at a time when clients are demanding diverse talent. “It is incumbent on legal employers to remain laser focused on the strategies necessary to develop a diverse group of lawyers and to re-examine and revamp their culture, policies and practices” to recruit, retain and promote them, she said.

The data also revealed opportunities for the ABA to provide members with needed guidance on technology support, wellness and implementation of diversity and inclusion programs.

Scharf and Liebenberg agreed that now is a fantastic time for leaders in the profession to rethink their paradigms to set long-term goals and strategies for their organizations. Best practices for employers moving forward include:

  • Increased use of metrics
  • Frequent, transparent and empathetic communications with employees
  • Greater use of flex-time and part-time policies
  • Reimagining firm compensation systems and billable hour requirements
  • Strengthening wellness and mental health programs
  • Growth in diversity, equity and inclusion strategies

Laura Farber, co-chair of the ABA Coordinating Group on Practice Forward with William Bay, said the survey prompted two resolutions to the ABA House of Delegates at the Midyear Meeting. Resolution 300A, urges the advancement of well-being in the legal profession and the elimination of stigma on legal professionals who seek mental health services; the other, Resolution 300B, urges Congress and states to appropriate adequate funding for child care and family care, and legal employers to develop policies and best practices to support such care.

The CLE program was sponsored by the Office of the President and co-sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Division, the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and the Diversity and Inclusion Center.