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Upcoming ABA Survey Identifies Lawyer Well-Being, Diversity Challenges

Later this month, the American Bar Association will release the results of its largest-ever member survey on the challenges they’ve faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and how they believe the practice of law should change as the disease releases its grip on the country.

Preliminary findings, shared during the ABA’s just-concluded midyear meeting, suggest:

  • Women lawyers with young children and lawyers of color are experiencing disproportionate levels of stress juggling client work, career development, and childcare responsibilities.
  • The pandemic has increased the legal profession’s appetite for remote work over traditional, office-based work environments.
  • The legal profession is having trouble meeting the needs of an emerging generation of younger, more diverse lawyers.

The ABA survey collected the views of more than 4,400 attorneys across all practice areas and geographic regions.

Lawyers Under Stress

Stephanie A. Scharf, a partner at Scharf Banks Marmor in Chicago and co-author of the survey, announced that the survey will document how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected lawyers and how survey respondents believe the pandemic will shape the legal profession after personal and professional life returns to normal.

More than half of survey respondents are working from home 100% of the time, Scharf said. These lawyers said they remained productive during the pandemic, with no meaningful change in their efficiency. However, she noted, the survey found evidence of considerable anxiety among attorneys about the effect remote work was having on their careers. 

“Many members feel overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed, with all that they have to do,” Scharf stated. “They worry about what their employers are thinking. Will they get the recognition they feel they deserve? What kind of job security do they have?”

Lawyers also reported worries about lack of client access and diminished business development opportunities while working remotely. Because billable-hours requirements have mostly remained the same during the pandemic, lawyers are experiencing much higher levels of stress managing work and home responsibilities. Scharf pointed out that lawyers with young children, especially women, are experiencing the most stress balancing work and family responsibilities.

The survey indicated that although most lawyers believe they have enough business to meet current revenue demands, they are nevertheless worried about the future.

Women Face Unique Challenges

Roberta D. Liebenberg, a partner at Fine Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia and co-author of the ABA survey, emphasized the survey’s finding that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on women, particularly women of color. Women tend to have greater responsibility for young children in their households, and they were additionally burdened by the pandemic-related loss of childcare as schools and child care centers closed down.

Women lawyers experienced work disruptions due to childcare obligations more often than men. “Women lawyers in general were more worried than men about advancement, about receiving salary reductions, getting furloughed or laid off, or, as a consequence of our now-virtual world, feeling less heard in meetings,” Liebenberg said. “Women lawyers with children often felt that they were being overlooked for assignments or client opportunities and that they were being viewed as not sufficiently committed to their firm or employer.” While it’s true women felt this way before the pandemic, she observed, they believe the situation is worse now.

Women lawyers and lawyers of color appear to be suffering more stress and disillusionment than the rest of the profession. According to the survey, 47% of lawyers of color feel stress some of the time. Nineteen percent experience stress very often or almost all the time. 

Liebenberg stated that women lawyers and lawyers of color feel less optimistic about their chances of success and advancement in the profession. The danger for law firms is that, at a time when clients are demanding diversity from their lawyers, factors such as stress and apprehension about long-term career prospects could produce an exodus of women and lawyers of color from the legal profession.

Remote Work Broadly Embraced

Scharf said the survey indicated that remote work appeals to the vast majority of lawyers. More than one-third would like full flexibility to choose their own work environment, including full-time remote work. The remaining two-thirds of survey respondents expressed a preference for a range of work arrangements — from one day in a shared, traditional law office to four or five days in the office each week.

Employers will need to adopt supportive policies that make remote work a success both for the employer and for individual lawyers. “There is definitely a demand for continued remote working,” Scharf said. “And we expect that leaders of law firms and law departments and organizations will have to focus on how an organization can support what so many lawyers say they would like to do.”

Scharf added that the survey results also pointed to a need for greater attention to lawyer well-being issues. “Lawyer well-being was a growing issue before the pandemic,” Scharf stated. “As we emerge from it, as people have learned what their own pressure points are, well-being has gained an even greater imperative.”

Younger Lawyers Have Unmet Needs

The legal profession is now graduating classes of lawyers who mirror the general population. Women comprise about half of law school graduating classes. The percentage of graduating lawyers of color does not yet match the overall population, but it is growing and will continue to grow. According to the survey, this new generation of lawyers identified a different set of support and training needs than their older peers.

For example, while survey respondents across all demographic groups said they were looking for guidance on the use of technology in their practice, younger lawyers revealed that they needed:

  • resources on mental health, well-being, and “burnout” prevention
  • guidance on ways to implement effective inclusion
  • resources for working parents
  • mentorship, sponsorship, and pro bono opportunities
  • recognition of racial justice issues
  • enhanced technology support, including stipends to purchase office equipment for home use
  • guidance on business development
  • guidance on law firm staffing models
  • increased networking opportunities and connections with affinity groups

Scharf pointed out that the needs identified in the survey were an opportunity for the bar association to serve its members and to grow membership. “Now is a great time for people to rethink what should law practice look like, and what should the places where lawyers practice look like,” Scharf advised. “It’s a fantastic time for leaders to rethink their paradigm of what their organization should look like, and what resources do lawyers need to succeed, and how will the organization achieve the diversity at all levels that so many are striving to achieve.”

The survey was conducted under the direction of the ABA Coordinating Group on Practice Forward. In addition to detailing the views of survey respondents, the survey report will propose best practices for law firms to meet some of the professional challenges identified in the survey.