New ABA survey reveals the COVID-19 pandemic prompts burnout in lawyers

In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers are overwhelmed by the pressures of their work — especially women with children and lawyers of color — with many considering leaving the profession, according to a new survey by the American Bar Association.

Findings from the national survey of 4,400 ABA members were presented last at the webinar, “Practice Forward: State-of-the-Art Best Practices for a Profession Impacted by the Pandemic,” which was part of the 2021 ABA Virtual Midyear Meeting.

The session was co-sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Division, the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and the Diversity and Inclusion Center.

The survey was conducted in fall 2020 to learn about the current and future expectations of practicing lawyers as well as their concerns, needs and goals moving forward.

While working remotely appeals to most lawyers, “Many members feel completely overwhelmed with all they have to do,” said Stephanie Scharf, one of the survey leads and founding partner of Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago.

They worry about employer support, client access, developing business and meeting billable hour requirements.

High levels of stress are particularly experienced by women with young children, Scharf said, who often felt overlooked for assignments and worried that their employers viewed them as not committed to their work.
Co-presenter Roberta Liebenberg, senior partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia, said women want more supportive, engaged and empathetic employers who are flexible and supportive.

Female lawyers also want more comprehensive plans for sick and family leave, and subsidies for childcare, tutoring and family care.

“The data is very sobering,” Liebenberg said, adding that the findings may forecast an exodus from the profession at a time when clients are demanding diverse talent. “It is incumbent on legal employers to remain laser focused on the strategies necessary to develop a diverse group of lawyers and to re-examine and revamp their culture, policies and practices” to recruit, retain and promote them, she said.

Laura Farber, co-chair of the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward, said the survey prompted two resolutions to the ABA House of Delegates at the Midyear Meeting.

One urged Congress and states to appropriate adequate funding for childcare and family care; the other urged the elimination of stigma on legal professionals who seek mental health services.