“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.” This quote from Henry Ford emphasizes the theory that what the mind focuses on, it magnifies. If we think bad things will happen, they most likely will.
It’s hard not to magnify negative thoughts these days. All you have to do is turn on the news and listen to the health and financial toll caused by COVID-19. And, as we well know, the legal profession isn’t immune.
Declining demand can lead to incivility
The demand for legal services has significantly dropped since COVID-19 began. According to a May report released by the practice management company Clio, there has been a 30% decline in the number of legal matters opened each week since the beginning of the year. As a result, pay cuts and layoffs are becoming the norm at law firms. This, in turn, leads to increased competition for work and clients.
Naturally, workplace uncertainty and increased competition can lead to a rise in uncivil behavior. In consulting with several attorneys, those who regularly practice litigation said they’ve seen the effects on a regular basis, through delayed discovery, withholding people for depositions, and halted negotiations.
The good news is that we have a choice. While the pandemic has created an environment that amplifies negative behavior, it has also created an opportunity to magnify instances of collaboration and support, which are happening with startling regularity across the profession.
Collaborating in new ways
In preparation for this piece, I reached out to attorneys to ask how they’ve seen the legal profession collaborate with and support one another during COVID-19. I received more stories of support than of incivility.
According to Leslie Corbett, executive director of the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, "Legal aid attorneys have stepped up to the plate during COVID-19 to share information on client need, to strategize on how best to meet demand once courts and offices are open again and to discuss ways to support staff remotely and foster individual wellness... Private attorneys serving on legal aid boards have advised on the CARES Act and in particular, SBA Payroll Protection Program loans…”
I received stories from organizational leaders who are using Zoom to share ideas on how to support their employees. Domestic relations attorneys told me they’re using Facebook groups to discuss best practices for representing clients experiencing increased incidents of domestic violence. These stories show that the profession is coming together to support each other in ways that weren’t on our radar pre-pandemic.
Community support abounds
The use of technology has dramatically increased since the beginning of COVID-19. Lawyers who were early adopters are helping other legal professionals use video conferencing and electronic signature tools so their clients don’t experience a disruption in service.
Kourtney Baltzer, an intellectual property partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, has seen firsthand how technology is creating a sense of community in the profession.
“I believe the sense of community in the legal profession has been heightened in light of the pandemic. Technology allows us to maintain collaboration and keep lines of communication open. I’ve participated in virtual happy hours, phone calls exchanging ideas on how to approach a remote deposition, and video conferences sharing tips on how to balance personal and professional lives while working from home. My connections with my colleagues and others in the legal community have continued to strengthen as we all tackle this experience together.”
Law schools are also stepping up to support their students. Northwestern Pritzker School of Law is offering free meditation, exercise and baking classes. In addition, after students moved to remote learning, Northwestern created a “Touch Points” email initiative where faculty and staff were randomly assigned 5-10 students. They sent each student an email to check in and share a story or something of interest.
According to Candace M. Bergeron, associate director of Student Engagement & Community at Northwestern Law, this initiative has been wildly successful.
“Many students wrote back to their assigned faculty/staff member and continued having meaningful, organic conversations. More importantly, students who would have likely flown under the radar or not asked for help were instead caught and received the support and assistance that they needed.”
These are just a few examples of inspiring stories I’ve heard. I encourage you to magnify impactful instances of collaboration. It’s my hope that the profession will follow and emerge from this pandemic in a way that makes us all proud.