The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly affected the state’s legal profession, but the impact has been uneven and often predicated on a practice’s specialty as well as how swiftly a firm adopted to technology changes, a statewide survey of Maryland attorneys conducted for The Daily Record and the Maryland State Bar Association finds.
COVID-19 shuttered courts, limited casework, and isolated attorneys from clients and colleagues alike. Yet some practitioners profited, experiencing declining job stress, and in some cases, additional clients as they worked from home. Others, meanwhile, reported high levels of stress and economic setbacks.
The Daily Record-Maryland State Bar Association survey, which drew responses from 293 attorneys statewide, suggests that Maryland’s legal industry is both nuanced and complicated. Some practices, for example, are reporting increased caseloads, while others say business has dwindled.
“I didn’t expect the differentiation,” said Daniel Bloom, vice president of market research at Best Companies Group, who led the study. “I expected it to be pretty monolithic.”
Across the board, more than a third of respondents said caseloads decreased, while about a fourth saw an increase. When broken down by practice area, more government and criminal firms said they saw an increase in caseloads, while 46% of family law firms surveyed said caseloads decreased.
Data from the survey suggests that the experiences of Maryland’s legal community and overall views toward remote work are dependent on a wide range of factors.
Many attorneys indicated that the closure of courts last year, which stalled litigation cases and delayed trial dates, had the largest impact on caseloads. At least 68% of respondents overall said they experienced delays, 49% saw document transition delays and 43% said fewer cases went to trial.
Some firms with multiple practice areas were able to offset declining caseloads with work in other areas, notes Randi Lewis, a recruiter at the Baltimore office of global legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.
More than 60% of respondents also indicated Covid-19 had no impact on witness management and 73% said it did not impact evidence sharing. But some lawyers disagree.
For Stacie Tobin, a litigator, and partner-in-charge at Venable’s Baltimore office, conducting deposition remotely makes it difficult to pick up on body language and demeanor.
“I would prefer to be in the room and hand the witness the document, but it is what it is,” she said. “We’ve been able to get through it.”
Handling more stressors
Stress at law firms is on the rise at some law firms as attorneys continue to work remotely. Forty-four percent of respondents said they experience more on-the-job stress, sometimes stemming from busy days at the office. Many smaller firms focused on litigation are seeing increased caseloads as courts reopen, while some attorneys at larger firms are working overtime to keep up, Lewis added.
“Busy is good for business but it also is a stressor,” she said.
On the other hand, declining caseloads and billable hours are also contributing to financial woes, some attorneys indicated. And, fear surrounding Covid-19 is another stressor, some lawyers said. Technological delays, including document retrieval, were also cited as contributors to stress.
A combination of economics, experience, and personality can also contribute to stress levels and views toward remote work, said Victor L. Velazquez, executive director of the MSBA. Some older, more seasoned attorneys have struggled to adapt to changing technologies like Zoom, while introverted attorneys, on the other hand, may prefer permanent remote work.
Some attorneys who responded to the survey, who were granted confidentiality, said they thrived under the circumstances, largely because they successfully adapted to new technologies.
“A lot of work was actually accomplished more efficiently since it was not required to go to court for all the very short hearings that were handled much better through Zoom,” one lawyer said.
“COVID has actually given me more time to practice law and less time sitting in court waiting for settlement conferences and scheduling conferences,” said another attorney. “I can continue working in my office and have the remote hearing open so that when the court officer appears, I can pick up at that time. I hope that many of the remote hearings and conferences continue. It is much more efficient and less costly for the clients.”
But others offered a litany of reasons why their stress levels soared.
“Caseloads are extremely high, nothing is being resolved, the ASA’s are offering horrible plea bargains, there is no negotiation process, and our clients are still being infected with COVID at the pretrial facilities holding them,” said one criminal defense attorney
“Dealing with irate clients because their divorce cases cannot get trial dates, or trial dates are postponed, or scheduled a year away,” said one family law practitioner.
“Doing two full-time jobs at once,” said another, “my attorney job and full-time 5th grade teacher.”
And finally, there was this outpouring from one lawyer who responded to the open-ended question about reasons for higher stress levels: “Figuring out new technology and how to make existing technology work; dealing with unexpected postponements and delays; reduced income; longer remote court hearings because of technological issues; having to lay off staff; having to apply for PPP loans and understanding how they work; handling the unemployment claims; figuring out how to resume work; fear that physical interactions with clients, staff, court personnel increased risk of contracting COVID-19; understanding all of the different court rulings setting forth court policies dealing with COVID-19; mail delays.”
A changing work environment
More than a third of Maryland law firms closed their offices for at least a portion of 2020, and almost half of those firms have yet to return to the office, a sign that the industry is changing, the survey found.
At least half of respondents said remote document signing, remote staff, flexible hours, and video depositions respectively are here to stay.
Remote depositions and hearings, Lewis notes, are a welcome reprieve for attorneys who typically traveled the country, but training new lawyers from afar is difficult outside the office. Yet, many are missing professional development and collaboration experienced in the office, said Tobin.
“As productive as folks have been at home, there are things we’re missing out on that are important to our business,” she said.
When asked that they thought would be the “new normal” after the pandemic subsides:
- 86% of respondents said they expect a higher proportion of Zoom or remote meetings;
- 64% said they expect a higher proportion of remote document signings:
- 61% said they expect more staff to be working remotely;
- 54% predict more part-time or flexible schedules for attorneys and staff;
- 50% expect more remote depositions;
- 42% expect a downsizing of physical office space.
The Daily Record–Maryland State Bar Association survey was conducted between May 10 and June 25. Among the respondents, 36% said they practiced civil law, 22% other, 11% business law, government, and family respectively and 9% criminal.
About a third practice in the Washington metro area, while 60% work around Baltimore. A third of respondents said they work in a solo practice, 39% identified as female, 43% as male, 1% as non-binary, and 18% did not identify.
Survey results are projectable to the Maryland ABA membership at the 95% level of confidence. The margin of error is +/- 6%.