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Md. Lawyers Survey: Unease with economy persists

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

Data from the 2020 Q3 Maryland Lawyers Survey reveals that many lawyers are still questioning the strength of the economic recovery and are reluctant to hire or make new investments even as pandemic-related restrictions ease up.

The Maryland State Bar Association-The Daily Record survey, which drew 261 responses from attorneys across the state, suggests that while many law practices are slowly recovering from the coronavirus-related shutdown, uncertainty persists among law firms of all sizes and experience.

“There’s not a material change between this quarter and last quarter,” said Randi Lewis, a recruiter at the Baltimore office of global legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

When asked whether they considered the overall state of the Maryland economy as good, a combined 72% of respondents disagreed somewhat or strongly with the statement, down from a combined 85% in the previous round. Data also suggests that the economic impact is dependent on a wide range of factors that stretch beyond the survey’s limits.

“There’s no one size fits all for any of these firms,” said Hilary Farace, a Baltimore-based branch manager at Robert Half, a recruiting company for legal and business staff. “Everyone is doing different things.”

Law practices that continue to hire have been aided by virtual technology like Zoom, which allows firms to speed up the interview process, she added.

About 70% of respondents indicated that they would be unlikely to hire new attorneys over the next few months. Twenty-eight percent said that they anticipate an increase in billable hours over the same period, a slight improvement from 25% in the previous quarterly survey.

Hiring trends are consistent with people not wanting to hire, although bigger firms have started to pick up, Lewis said. The recruiter is working with some small firms seeking to replace associates who have departed or looking to add partners with business.

Most firms are refraining from projecting how they think the fourth quarter is going and how they will fare because they just don’t know, she added.

Among the respondents, a majority stemmed from five jurisdictions –– Montgomery County, Baltimore, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Prince George’s County. About a quarter of correspondents practice in Montgomery County, followed by 19% in Baltimore and 14% in Baltimore County.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said they have been in practice for more than 20 years. A little over half practice civil law, and 54% of respondents operate in a practice with one to two lawyers.

A total of 157 males, 99 females, and five who declined to share their gender responded to the survey. The overall index score for the survey, which ranges from -100 to 100 and measures negative and positive perceptions, rose to -29 from -37 in the last quarter.

“The survey responses reflect the appropriate caution firms are taking during this pandemic,” said Lewis. “Firms of all sizes are guardedly optimistic but uncertain about their business in the third and fourth quarters of 2020.”

Views toward investing in new technology, support staff and infrastructure increased slightly from the second quarter, following a significant decline from first quarter responses.

When asked whether they agreed with the assertion that their company would invest in new technology in the next three months, a combined 36% agreed strongly or somewhat with the statement, up marginally from 35% in the previous survey.

Many solo practitioners or small practices invested in new technology and infrastructure at the beginning of the pandemic to allow employees to work from home, and the data is consistent with them having already made that shift and trying to keep costs down now, Lewis said.

While unemployment data suggests a drastic loss in jobs nationwide, few legal employees lost jobs, although many were furloughed, Farace said. Work is picking up because of lawsuits, bankruptcy filings and contracts stemming from the pandemic, she added.

“When you break it down to legal, there was definitely a stall and people were less busy,” Farace said. “But there’s so much going in the legal community that it doesn’t stop and it hasn’t stopped.”

Some practice areas — including estate planning, employment law, health care, bankruptcy and some finance practices — are thriving, Lewis added.

“Many firms are doing much better than they had anticipated during this pandemic,” 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 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 -29, compared to -37 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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