It’s probably safe to say that in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced so many of us to quickly transition to working from home full time, we didn’t expect to be continuing to do so a year and a half later. For many of us, the pandemic has significantly changed where and how we work, as well as how we handle stress.
In September and October 2020, the American Bar Association surveyed more than 4,000 members – one of the most extensive surveys the organization has ever conducted. When results were published in 2021, many conclusions didn’t come as much of a surprise: lawyers have been worried about employer support, reduced access to clients, and trying to “do it all.”
Meanwhile, another study focused on mental health and substance abuse found that the pandemic may have exacerbated problems already present in the legal industry.
ABA members reported “much higher levels of stress in trying to manage work and home; higher levels of disengagement with the social aspects of work; and more frequent thoughts about whether full-time work is worth it.” The survey found that this feeling was especially prevalent among women and that “[t]he pandemic has influenced women, even more than has been usual, to consider whether to step back from or leave the profession.”
A recent study by Justin Ankor, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry, reached a similar conclusion. Ankor and his research partner Patrick Krill, a former attorney and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, found that one in four female attorneys have considered leaving the profession due to mental health concerns. Further, their study found that attorney attrition rates are 150% higher for women than for men.
Ankor and Krill’s study focused primarily on substance abuse issues, which continue to cause concern in the legal profession. Of the 12,825 attorneys surveyed in California and Washington, D.C., 20.6% engaged in “problematic drinking.”
In general, ABA lawyers reported no meaningful change in their efficiency while working from home. However, those with small children did experience an unsurprising dip in productivity. Remote work combined with lack of daycare access proved to be a huge problem, particularly for female attorneys with young children, who the survey found were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Of course, no discussion of remote work would be complete without touching on technology. In the past, the legal industry has been notoriously reluctant when it comes to adopting new technologies. But when the pandemic left many with no other choice, firms across the country admirably embraced remote work and other tech-focused strategies—and it seems likely that at least some of those changes will stick around.
In the ABA’s survey, most lawyers indicated that they did not want to return to the old ways of working. Although many reported that they missed seeing their colleagues at the office, they also appreciated the flexibility offered by working from home. Going forward, it seems likely that law firms, like many other organizations, will consider offering 1-2 “flexible” workdays per week in a hybrid remote work model.
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