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ANALYSIS: Lawyer Well-Being Critical During Pandemic

March 25, 2020, 7:41 PM

The courts are still functioning and law firms are still open for business, even if rules are changing and many are working from home. While the new coronavirus pandemic is leading many firms to shift strategies to revenue-creating responses, how are lawyers holding up?

Firms that began prioritizing lawyer well-being through new programs, policies, and incentives like work-life programs and alternative hours targets before the crisis have most likely had a head start in responding to the pandemic.

According to a recent Bloomberg Law survey, large law firms are the ones who likely got this head start. Survey results show that large law firms have been leading the way in making changes in response to the lawyer well-being movement. Large firms also constitute a notable portion of the signatories to the American Bar Association’s Well-Being Pledge. As part of that pledge, legal employers commit to, among other things, working towards adopting and prioritizing the ABA’s seven-point framework for improving lawyer well-being.

Bloomberg Law’s 2019 Law Firm Benchmarks Survey, which gathered responses from 496 lawyers regarding internal programs, practices, and organizational structures, asked respondents about impacts of the lawyer well-being movement. More than 40% of lawyers at large law firms reported new or expanding well-being-focused programs at their firm. However, mid-sized law firms lagged behind at 23%, followed by only 10% of small firms. More than half of small law firms and more than 40% of mid-sized firms reported no internal changes related to lawyer well-being. Across the board, large law firms led the way in reported changes due to the lawyer well-being movement.

Nearly 60% of large firm lawyers reported that their firms offer work-life programs compared to 37% percent of mid-sized firm lawyers and 26% of small firm lawyers. Responses indicate that almost half of the large firms offer alternative target hours, compared to only one-third of the small and mid-sized firms.

As legal employers confront coronavirus anxiety, lawyer well-being should be of primary importance to all law firms as they hope to weather this economic downturn and public health crisis. As some states have recognized, to be competent under the rules of professional conduct, lawyers need to be mentally, emotionally, and physically well.

Not only is focusing on lawyer well-being the right thing to do, but it ultimately can help reduce the potential for errors and related malpractice claims. Emails reminding associates of their billable hour requirements, without first asking how they are doing or providing avenues for them to deal with these times of increased stress and anxiety, will neither serve the law firms nor their clients in the end.

For firms that are late to the game or are in need of catching up, there is no time like the present: The ABA’s COVID-19 Mental Health Resources page includes information about the mental health implications of the pandemic and links to resources for legal employers.

Perhaps now that lawyers must work remotely and use technology more than they otherwise would, law firm management can more easily assess how technology, when used appropriately, can help free up associates’ time and contribute to their well-being.

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