Karyn wrote an Article

Published 07/13/23 by Admin

The Impact of Covid-19 on Solo Practitioners

Posted by: Cameron Monachino on Jun 28, 2023
Sections: Small Firm & Solo Practitioner
Committees: Mental Health and Wellness

For the most part, it seems that most of the effects of COVID-19 are behind us. Once the vaccines were made available, we were all largely able to go back to living the way we did before. However, it seems that certain changes brought about by the pandemic are going to be permanent, especially in the legal profession. Courts began holding video hearings (many still do); CLEs were hosted online (and self-study caps are now a thing of the past); and firms moved largely to remote work. That said, there is a contingency of attorneys for whom many of the COVID-imposed changes affected in a very specific and sometimes problematic way—the solo practitioner.

According to a 2022 survey of 2000 lawyers performed by the American Bar Associationalmost 90% of respondents reported that their firms were still allowing remote work—mostly in private practice. Close to 60% of these lawyers had the ability to work remotely, whether on a flexible schedule or entirely if they desire. However, around 75% of respondents indicated that they would still work in an office setting if their firm asked them to do so. I wonder if that statistic is related to the one that shows that more than 40% of lawyers feel that their level of isolation increased with remote work, along with half reporting that the quality of their relationships with colleagues had decreased.

Of the attorneys surveyed, one-third were solo practitioners. This group of attorneys, to which until very recently I belonged, had unique challenges due to the pandemic. They rely on networking to build and maintain their client base, which became increasingly difficult with quarantines and social distancing. For those without support staff, navigating and implementing new technological and security requirements or finding alternative advertising methods took time away from billable work. Even those who had support staff were not immune (no pun intended) from difficulty—the inability to have in-office assistance meant that administrative, non-billable tasks fell on the attorney. And heaven forbid you or someone you support end up with COVID, because there’s no one there to cover your work, and client matters could end up overwhelming or neglected entirely.

I had been working remotely as an independent paralegal well before the virus required it, so when I passed the October 2020 bar (a strange experience in itself), I didn’t think much would change about my life. But I couldn’t have imagined the toll that “pandemic practice” would take on my physical and mental health. For example, because I had no way to truly connect with established solos, I was left to my own devices in navigating the challenges of not only being a new lawyer but also a business owner in a heavily-regulated field. I found myself so desperately lonely, and without a social life or professional support system of similarly-situated lawyers, I began working 12-14 hour days just to occupy my time. For someone with a mental illness that requires a (relatively) consistent sleep schedule to control, it was a totally unsustainable lifestyle. It was only because of my access to mental health care that I stayed as stable as I did.

Thankfully, since life has returned to normal, these issues have become less insidious. We’re able to attend bar association events, have client lunches, and schedule coffee with other lawyers in our practice areas. The technological and practical kinks have been ironed out. We have social lives again, which keep us from losing ourselves to our work. But as we’ve learned, we can easily lose that stability, with very little warning. We as a profession need to be more well-versed in the resources available to us, many of which were brought about by the pandemic itself. Dozens upon dozens of CLEs were conducted with topics related to remote work, including those that deal specifically with mental health.

Solo work has always been more isolating and in many ways more complicated than other types of practice. It’s the nature of the beast. It requires a great deal of self-regulation, the ability to perform at a high level without any oversight, and a firm grasp on the mechanics involved in running a business. These challenges were only amplified by the pandemic. But perhaps as a result, those who work solo can be more vigilant and aware of those difficulties and the mental and emotional toll they can take. Likewise, those who work in a group can be more proactive in supporting the solos we see struggling under the weight of their dual roles as business owners/lawyers. Whether or not we share each other’s circumstances, the profession as a whole should share the burden. After all, no one is an island, and no one should suffer alone.

Liebenberg, Roberta & Scharf, Stephanie. “Where Does the Legal Profession Go From Here?” 2022. https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/law-practice-division/practice-forward/2022-practice-forward-report.pdf

Karyn Washington is an associate attorney at Barr, Jones & Associates LLP in Cleveland. From December 2020 until May 2023, she was a solo practitioner, focused in the areas of residential real estate, domestic relations, and bar admissions/character & fitness matters. She has been a member of the CMBA Mental Health & Wellness Committee since 2018, and frequently works in conjunction with the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program to present substance abuse and mental health seminars to lawyers and law students. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2013, she invites anyone in the legal community who is seeking resources or information on living with mental illness to contact her by phone at 216-264-0326, or by email to kwashington@barrjoneslegal.com.