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Md. lawyers survey: Impact of pandemic clear but uneven

This is the latest installment of The Daily Record’s Maryland Lawyers Survey, a confidential survey of private attorneys in the state sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association that explores their views on the economic factors influencing attorneys’ practices. If you’d like to participate in our next survey, please sign up. Also, dive deep into our data visualizations of the results of this survey.

Sponsor of the Maryland Lawyers Survey

The Q2 Maryland Lawyers Confidence Survey portrays an industry struggling amid the coronavirus-driven economic shutdown, with firms shedding hiring plans they had earlier in the year and pulling back on other investments.

The survey revealed attorneys in the state have a dismal assessment of the state of Maryland’s economy, hardly a surprise with thousands of businesses shut down, many legal proceedings put on hold and almost 800,000 residents filing for first-time unemployment benefits in the past 13 weeks.

But the data also suggest the impact is being felt unevenly, with some firms and practices saying they still see areas where they plan to invest and are confident about their own economic prospects.

The Daily Record-Maryland State Bar Association survey was conducted May 25-29 and drew responses from 393 attorneys.

The questions in the survey are identical to those asked in previous surveys so as to track trends in sentiments, even though some of those questions, structured to ask attorneys if they agree with positive assertions, may seem rooted in more optimistic times.

Asked about the overall state of Maryland’s economy, 85% of respondents either strongly or somewhat disagreed with the assertion that the economy was good.

The overall index score for the survey, designed to measure the degree of positive or negative views, fell from -3 to -37, the lowest mark in the survey’s 2 ½-year history.

Three months ago, more attorneys than not indicated their firms or practices were likely to invest in marketing and technology and see higher billable hours. Sentiment in all three of those areas took a significant decline in the Q2 survey.

For instance, in the first quarter survey, 38% of those interviewed said they expected an increase in billable hours; that figure had dropped to 25% in the most recent survey.

Among the respondents, 207 indicated they’re at firms of 1-12 lawyers; 117 at practices with 3-15; 27 at firms with between 16 and 40 attorneys; and 42 at firms of 41 or more lawyers.

The survey was taken by 239 men, 141 women, two who identified as nonbinary and 11 who declined to answer the question on gender identity.

While the survey was taken by attorneys across Maryland, it was dominated by responses from five jurisdictions – Montgomery County (99); Baltimore County (77); Baltimore city (71); Anne Arundel County (37); and Prince George’s County (34).

It is difficult to draw conclusions from subsets of the survey data, such as type of practice, because those numbers are too small to form valid statistical conclusions. Still, Randi Lewis, a recruiter at the Baltimore office of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, said leaders of many firms in Maryland have reported that their second-quarter financial performance was better than they expected.

Anecdotal evidence as well as the survey results suggest that some types of practices are faring better than others, she said.

Diversified firms as well as those in some specific practice types – labor and employment, government relations, finance, for instance – are in a better position to weather the storm than a boutique litigation firm whose caseload has been affected by courthouse closures, Lewis noted.

The MSBA indicated 60% of the state’s 35 largest law firms applied for loans from the Paycheck Protection Program authorized by Congress to help small businesses during the pandemic-caused slowdown. Lewis said the program had been “extremely helpful” to those firms that received loans, many of which will be forgiven if the recipients are able to maintain payroll.

Still, she noted, “law firms are appropriately engaging in cost-cutting … like every business.”

The results of one survey question reflect the recognition by firms that they will need to maintain or even expand their technology investments. Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated their practice is likely to invest in technology in the next three months, only a slight drop from the previous quarter’s results.

Lewis said that underscores how many attorneys and support staff have had to work from home in the last few months and likely needed, or still need, technology upgrades.

The work-from-home experience, she added, is giving firms pause as they assess their future office needs.

“In terms of real estate, firms that are renegotiating their leases in the near future are reviewing what kind of space they really need, given their people can work at home effectively,” Lewis said.

Some managing partners and chairs of large Maryland law firms recently have expressed hope that the worst of the pandemic’s economic hit may soon be over.

Lewis said a number of variables remain at play – whether there will be a surge in infections; the strength of business reopenings; the extent of consumer confidence; and whether government assistance programs are maintained.

“I think we need to take a wait-and-see approach,” she said.

How the Maryland Lawyers Survey was conducted

 The confidential survey was emailed to The Daily Record’s master database of subscribers, who were asked if they were attorneys in private practice and did not work for a government agency or law school. Respondents who chose “yes” were taken to the survey.

The survey was also sent to members of the Maryland State Bar Association, the survey’s co-sponsor. The survey was conducted by Best Companies Group, an experienced market and consumer research company in central Pennsylvania that is owned by The Daily Record’s parent company. The results were compiled by Best Companies.

An index score for each question and for the overall survey was calculated by taking the (total positive responses – negative responses)/total responses x 100. The total index score for the second quarter was -37, compared to -3 for the previous quarter.

Would you like to participate?

If you are an attorney in private practice in Maryland and would like to participate in the quarterly Maryland Lawyers Survey, click here. Your name and survey responses will remain confidential.

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