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Optimism grows in Md. lawyers survey, though omicron may dampen spirits

The survey was sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association and The Daily Record.

The latest results of the Maryland Lawyers Confidence Survey show signs of optimism in an industry still grappling with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overall index score for the survey which measures positive and negative views on a scale from -100 to 100, rose dramatically since the previous survey in December 2020, from -20 to a neutral 0.

The index score hit an all-time low of -37 in Q2 of 2020 and has slowly risen since then, but has not left the negative range since the start of the pandemic.

The survey is a joint project conducted for The Daily Record and the Maryland State Bar Association.

The survey results were gathered from Dec. 3-17, as the Omicron variant was gaining steam but before it led to a halt in jury trials at the state and federal levels.

“I think people were starting to feel a little better until omicron hit,” said M. Natalie McSherry, the president of the Maryland State Bar Association and a principal at Kramon & Graham. “From a law firm business standpoint, I think a lot of firms like ours have gone back to very limited on-premises work.”

The survey also showed other signs of growing optimism: a growing proportion of respondents agreed that the state of the economy is good. But the 40% who agreed the economy is doing well remain outnumbered by the 45% who disagreed, the results show.

A year ago, a combined 60% of respondents said they disagreed somewhat or strongly that the state of the economy was good.

The survey responses overwhelmingly came from lawyers at small firms with 15 or fewer lawyers, and from male lawyers who have been practicing for 20 years or more. Those demographics may skew the results, said Randi Lewis, a recruiter at the Baltimore office of legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

For example, 55% of respondents said they disagree with the statement that their firm plans to hire additional attorneys in the next three months. That’s an improvement from December 2020, when 70% of respondents said their firms were unlikely to hire new attorneys, but may only reflect a piece of the hiring market.

“The vast majority of the respondents are firms with one to two people, and I wouldn’t expect those firms to be hiring,” Lewis said.

The picture is different for major and midsized firms, she said, which scrambled to bring on new lawyers amid a boom in business activity after the worst days of the early pandemic.

“A global business activity boom in 2021 created an overwhelming demand for transactional associates and partners in law firms across the country, including a hiring frenzy for corporate, finance and real estate lawyers in Maryland,” Lewis said. “All indicators show that deal flow into the first part of 2022 remains strong.”

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of technology and brought technology into new areas of legal practice.

Nearly 40% of survey respondents said their firms are likely to invest in new technology, more than the number of respondents who said their firms would invest in support staff or marketing. And 45% of respondents said artificial intelligence and technologies that automate will be one of the biggest drivers of change in the legal profession over the next five years.

Remote participation, which became necessary during the pandemic, has also opened up new options for lawyers who otherwise might have had difficulty attending meetings or making it to court in person.

“There will be a lot more use of technology because we’ve learned how to use it,” McSherry said. The bar association has seen “a huge increase” in the number of people participating in meetings and continuing legal education because they have gone virtual, she said.

“If you’re home with little kids and you live in western Maryland, you can still attend a CLE or attend an MSBA meeting on Zoom. There’s a little more flexibility,” McSherry said.

The technology is likely here to stay, Lewis said. It has allowed lawyers to perform many kinds of work remotely, from depositions to court hearings.

“Law firms understand the value of this ability to connect remotely,” she said. “It doesn’t replace in-person meetings, but it can certainly facilitate meaningful dialogue and business transactions.”

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.