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Lawyers, Big Law Firms Confront Coronavirus Anxiety

March 19, 2020, 8:51 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at what lawyers are telling their therapists about “coronavirus anxiety” and how law firms are responding.

Alan Levin, a Chicago-based lawyer-turned-therapist, has had sessions with lawyers calling from parked cars. He worries what will happen to his patients who see their law office and long hours as refuge from personal strife.

Will Meyerhofer’s single patients in New York City tell their therapist on Skype that they’re billing hours from home in sweatpants. They spend their nights alone, playing video games. The introverts feel, for now, like they’ve caught a break.

“It has a little bit of a snow day feel to it,” said Meyerhofer, a former Sullivan & Cromwell associate who is now a therapist treating lawyers. “The crisis feel is kind of familiar, at least in Big Law. But we will see how it feels in two weeks.”

Much of the country is grappling with “coronavirus anxiety,” and lawyers are not immune. Searches for the term have skyrocketed on Google. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that the increased stress levels from the pandemic can cause myriad health problems, including increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

Lawyers already struggle with high levels of anxiety, depression, and addiction. Those can be heightened by today’s reality: worrying over your health or that of loved ones; upended work routines; and a general uncertainty about what will happen tomorrow—let alone in two weeks.

Therapists, law firm wellness programs, and bar groups are promoting activities that can help maintain well-being. They include building new routines at home, sharing with co-workers and family members any feelings of anxiety or depression, and reaching out for professional help when necessary. (The American Bar Association has a resource page here.)

“The tone that law firm management needs to set right now related to mental health and emotional well-being during this time needs to be explicit and direct,” said Patrick Krill, a lawyer and leading expert on addiction and mental health in the legal profession.

“This is an anxiety-inducing time that the country is in, that the legal profession is in, that all of us are in,” he said. Firms would be well-served to acknowledge that and to make it OK for people to speak about that and ask for resources.”

Krill said one silver lining is that law firms are somewhat better prepared today than in the past to communicate with lawyers and employees about the importance of mental health issues.

About 180 law firms, companies and bar groups have signed the ABA’s Well-Being Pledge, which includes a seven-step initiative targeting substance-use disorders and mental health issues among lawyers. The pledge includes providing confidential access to addiction and mental health experts for all employees.

The pledge was instituted after a 2017 ABA study found nearly 28% of lawyers experienced depression, 19% experienced anxiety, and 21% of lawyers and judges reported problematic alcohol use.

A survey by ALM Media in February found that 64% of 3,800 respondents feel they have anxiety while 31% feel they are depressed.

Ropes & Gray offers an employee assistance program that provides free sessions with a counselor. The firm has developed an internal website regarding coronavirus anxiety and working remotely that is based on four broad points: Eat well, move more, stress less, sleep soundly.

“Humans love predictability,” said Katherine Adamenko, manager of well-being at Ropes & Gray. “We want to immediately create new routines, which provides a sense of security in these uncertain times. That’s my number one tip, in every area of your life.”

Levin, the Chicago-based therapist, said many lawyers view their offices as a place to go to avoid stressful situations in their personal lives. Lawyers often over-work during difficult times such as a divorce, he said.

While that is not necessarily healthy in the long-term, lawyers in the short-term will need to find ways to balance personal relationships while also finding time to be alone.

“The core concept here is that we all need private, safe spaces,” Levin said. “We all need connection with other people as well as time and space where we can be alone by choice.”

One way Krill said lawyers could find some relief is limiting exposure to social media. He said he stopped paying attention to Twitter feeds in part because of fighting over what feelings or fears should be prioritized. He said minimizing others people’s reactions to the outbreak is generally unhelpful.

“Make no mistake, when people are in the grips of a mental health crisis, perhaps as a result of this, they could experience very real health consequences or death,” he said. “It is a time where we need to be positive and look to support each other whatever the need is.”

Update from the Bay Area:

Last week, I wrote about San Francisco-based Hanson Bridgett’s plan to work remotely. That was accelerated this week when most of the firm’s workforce was impacted by the shelter-in-place rules affecting nearly 7 million people in the Bay Area. Here is an update from managing partner Andrew Giacomini:

“We have the IT infrastructure, training and, culture necessary to support these changes so that our clients will continue to be well-served, including the significant new help they all need to respond to the coronavirus. The key for us has been supporting our people as they confront rapid change that is disrupting their lives, from food shortages to school closures, caring for elders and the like. Our approach has been to focus on flexibility and the health of our people, so that they will be well and also feel well supported and can care for their families while also serving our clients.

Worth Your Time

On Big Law Mergers: Troutman Sanders and Pepper Hamilton are temporarily delaying their merger because of the coronavirus and the resultant public health crisis, my colleague Sam Skolnik reports.

On Big Law Money: Kirkland & Ellis is poised to remain the highest-grossing law firm in the U.S., AmLaw reports, saying the firm became the first with revenue to top $4 billion in 2019. These are preliminary numbers only.

On Courts and Coronavirus: The federal judiciary asked Congress for $7 million in additional funding to blunt the impact of the pandemic over the next three months, my colleague Madison Alder reports.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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