Young lawyers have been experiencing more professional hardship than senior lawyers during the pandemic. With a hard-hit economy, a halt on many networking opportunities, and fewer new jobs available, the outlook is uncertain for recent graduates attempting to get their careers off the ground. Jim Calloway and Sharon Nelson discuss these issues and more with young lawyer Graham Bryant. Graham outlines the unique stressors faced by young lawyers, shares coping strategies and resources, and offers his thoughts on what the profession will look like post-COVID.
Graham K. Bryant is a frequent writer and presenter on the technological, legal, and social trends affecting the legal profession in the twenty-first century.
The Digital Edge
COVID-19 is Brutal to Young Lawyers
Intro: Welcome to The Digital Edge with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway, your hosts, both legal technologists, authors, and lecturers invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Sharon Nelson: Welcome to the 152nd edition of The Digital Edge, Lawyers in Technology. We’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson, President of Sensei Enterprises, an information technology, cybersecurity, and digital forensics firm in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jim Calloway: And I’m Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. Today, our topic is COVID-19 is Brutal to Young Lawyers. But first, —
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Our guest today is Graham K. Bryant, a frequent writer and presenter on the technological, legal, and social trends affecting the legal profession in the 21st century. He will shortly conclude a term as a judicial law clerk to Justice William C. Mims of the Supreme Court of Virginia in which role he studied developments in state and federal appellate law as well as techniques for effective legal reasoning and writing. Graham will be joining the Richmond, Virginia-based Byrne Law Group in September as a Virginia appellate specialist. Thanks for joining us today, Graham.
Graham Bryant: Thank you Jim, it’s an absolute pleasure to be here.
Sharon Nelson: Well, let’s get started by trying to figure out why young lawyers are so vulnerable to professional disadvantages during COVID-19.
Graham Bryant: Sharon, I’d say this, short answer is that the changes prompted by COVID-19 almost across the board are ones that are disproportionately harmful to younger lawyers than their more senior colleagues. You see demographically, young lawyers are at a particularly vulnerable place. These folks have typically just finished law school. They’re facing significant law school debt and they’re doing that just about the time they’re trying to get themselves established in life. A lot of them are either just entering marriages. They’re just beginning to buy houses. They’re doing all the things that you do when you finish school and set off on your own.
And with all of that comes a great degree of financial risk. For instance, they may well be renting for a while as they save up to own a house and if they have a new job somewhere different after law school, they have moving costs. They also have child care issues to worry about, senior partners tend to have fewer little tiny baby attorneys running around than their more junior associates have. And with that comes starter houses, starter apartments, and less space. In the era of COVID, you, your significant other, and any children that you might have are all sharing the same workspace. That’s not conducive to billing hours or accomplishing much of anything. The soft disadvantages of not being in the office or attending events also lead to a loss of opportunities that are needed in the early career. Taken together, every aspect of a young lawyer’s practice has been negatively affected by COVID in a way that more senior lawyers just aren’t experiencing. Although, of course, all lawyers across the board have really taken a hit with COVID.
Sharon Nelson: Amen to that.
Jim Calloway: Yes, I’ve noticed that social distancing means I don’t get quite as much work as I used to done randomly running into colleagues in the hall and getting a quick question answered. But Graham, how has social distasting inhibited young lawyer’s professional development?
Graham Bryant: I think the personal downsides to social distancing, which I kind of like to call physical distancing because we still do try to keep our connections. Our connections are vital, we just can’t do it in person. But we definitely lose something by not being able to do what we do in person.
Like you just said Jim, a lot of what happens is when you’re in the office and you’re kind of running into people, you can pop into the attorney’s office down the hallway and ask a question, you have kind of chance meetings with people that might lead to things that you wouldn’t have otherwise, that’s just not happening now. When you’re trapped at home and all you’re doing is billing hours, writing papers, and submitting things from your own office and your only meetings are scheduled Zoom meetings, those serendipitous events that really tend to be key to getting a career off the ground just aren’t happening.
The same is true for your extracurriculars so to speak. Bar organizations, ends of court and similar meetings just aren’t happening. So what you instead see are lawyers that are only visible to clients in the billing records. It’s the firm figureheads, the senior partners, the people that hit up groups that are still being able to connect with clients whereas lawyers that might begin to get breaks and meet people at bar events and whatever, they aren’t happening. I’m actively involved in the Virginia Bar Association and the local line of court here in Richmond and both of them have been almost entirely online since March. There are probably five or six in-person meetings I would have attended, some of which would be multiple days long that just haven’t happened and by not doing that, you lose a great degree of opportunities.
Sharon Nelson: Yeah, I think that’s true especially for those who haven’t got the connections yet. I mean, you and I, Graham as an example. You and I have been reaching out to each other periodically just to say, “Hey, how are you doing?” And we have questions for one another. We’ve collaborated on a couple of things but if you don’t know people at all, this is not the way to start.
Graham Bryant: Exactly. Our relationship began because I watched a CLE you put together in 2017 and I stayed after, walked up, we had a conversation. The next thing you know, I’m presenting CLEs and podcasting with you. That doesn’t happen if you don’t get to go to the meeting in the first place.
Sharon Nelson: Really, that is truly a very good example of how things work. What effects would you say that COVID-19 has had on career mobility for the younger lawyers?
Graham Bryant: In two words, absolute uncertainty. You see that graduating into recession, colloquially, it’s never a good thing but in preparing for this, I actually looked up a study, Stanford University in 2019 actually did a literature review collecting studies of different graduating classes and economic conditions and the bottom line result is if you graduate into a recession, you’re going to be earning less than people who don’t graduate into a recession for at least 10 to 15 years after graduation versus people that graduate in a period of prosperity. Ten to 15 years is a strikingly large portion of one’s professional career. It’s a major setback. In terms of practicality, what is COVID doing to lawyers that are looking for something if you have a job, even a mediocre one that in a better market you would be looking to step out of, the incentive is just to hunker down and stay there because it provides some degree of certainty.
But even that isn’t fully certain because that assumes you don’t get laid off or have a salary cut or anything else like that that’s been going around. If you don’t have a job, well, good luck. No one’s hiring and those that are hiring seem primarily to be looking to experienced laterals that can bring a book of business with them. I don’t know about you, I didn’t come out of law school with a book of business and for people that are still building their practice or say, soon to leave a government clerkship or other government employment and you don’t have the private practice connections, you can be largely up a creek. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to have a smooth transition at the end of my clerkship here in a few weeks into private practice and I personally fully attribute that to the foundation I’ve laid over my last four years of clerking by attending these meetings, networking with people, doing what I could.
If I was a recent law graduate right now, I don’t know what I would be doing. In fact, one of my co-clerks who’s also graduating this year is supposed to be joining a larger law firm in downtown Richmond and typically that would happen a few weeks after your clerkship. She can’t start until January and it’s not like she’s inexperienced. Everyone across the board is taking the hit. Firms are hurting and to protect the people that they already have, they’re delaying or rescinding offers.
Sharon Nelson: That timetable is what I’ve been hearing too that they’re just saying that you’re not going to start until January. So, I’m not sure what they’re supposed to do for the six months but they certainly do have delayed starts.
Jim Calloway: Well, is legal entrepreneurship even possible during a pandemic, Graham?
Graham Bryant: Let me tell you, Jim. It’s a difficult time to try to hang a shingle even if other prospects have dried up though, it might still be a solid option. In fact, I was reading the Altman Weil 2020 Law Firms in Transition Survey recently and in there, there was a kernel of good news for people who might be looking to try to take advantage of the moment and whether out of a spirit of entrepreneurship or frankly desperation, there’s still some hope here.
The report noted that disruption and uncertainty always bring opportunities to get ahead. For example, back in 2009, firms of all sizes saw opportunities to take work from larger firms as clients looked for high-quality work at lower rates and for leaner staffing of matters and cases. Such opportunities abound in the current environment. I think the same is true right now during COVID. That’s what it means by the current environment. But the trick is new attorneys who choose to start their own practices, they have some advantages but they also have to be careful with what they do.
So on the advantages column, COVID has created new ways to get capital. There’s the Paycheck Protection Program and similar local grants for small businesses. If you can hang up a shingle, hire one or two staff people, you qualify for these and can get startup funding without having to go and get a private loan. Moreover, as both of you well know, technology has advanced by leap and bound such that you can start an almost completely digital paperless law firm with little more than a laptop and some basic equipment. The startup costs are not that high and you can still perform quality legal work.
The caution, however, I think brings me back to that Altman Weil Survey. They said that many law firms look the same to prospective clients. They don’t project a distinct and compelling value that distinguishes them from similar firms. Being smart experienced lawyers who know how to get the job done, is that enough? Not if your five closest competitors can say the same. And I think the report is dead on with that. If you do choose to enter the market right now, you have to have some sort of distinguishing value, some sort of angle that you can sell that will get clients to come in and when lots of other people are hanging their shingles or trying to court clients from some of the bigger law firms without that special angle, it can be very difficult. And for younger lawyers, how will they have time to develop a specialty or some other particular hook that can bring people in that would separate them from other small practitioners.
And then of course it’s mighty hard to market a firm from scratch when you can’t go out and meet people to develop clients.
Jim Calloway: That’s certainly true.
Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon Nelson: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today our subject is COVID-19 is Brutal to Young Lawyers. Our guest today is my friend, Graham Bryant, currently a judicial law clerk to Justice William Mims of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Graham will shortly be joining the Richmond, Virginia-based Byrne Legal Group in September as a Virginia appellate specialist.
So Graham, turning to the home front for young lawyers, how has COVID-19 affected their living situation?
Graham Bryant: Well, far and away, the most notable effect of COVID-19 that I think all of us can agree on is the mass abandonment of the office due to social distancing practices. Workspaces that have their fancy multi-monitor setups, copying machines, all the resources you could want have been replaced by people’s kitchen tables, bedrooms, anywhere you can sit a computer and in some cases, I’ve actually been using my work laptop on top of a bookcase as a makeshift standing desk, the finest office it is not.
And with that, I think as I mentioned a little bit earlier, you are at home, which means your significant other might be home, children might be home, pets are home and with them come distractions. People notice that when they work from home, they tend to be slightly less productive.
And after they kind of factor out the distractions and things like that, they might be wondering, “Well, why am I not getting as much done?” Well, first and foremost, there’s the mental load that we have been in functionally an emergency situation for the better part of half a year now. There’s a constant mental stress that comes with that. But also, there’s a thing that some psychologists call “home office syndrome” and that’s the feelings of stress, loneliness, exhaustion and just generally feeling overwhelmed from a blurring of the boundaries between work life and home life.
So, when you’re trying to bill hours in the bedroom or bill hours from your kitchen table, these are places that we associate with kind of being home, being safe. There’s cognitive dissonance there and it hurts. It hurts your productivity and it just does not make you for being a good person.
The best strategies for coping with this home office syndrome and being productive while you’re at home is to try to make those boundaries. The best thing to do if you can, obviously, is to have a dedicated workspace at home. But as we’ve been talking about, a lot of new lawyers that are just starting out have prudently made the decision to not necessarily go right into the multi-million-dollar homes to have the big spaces. That means that they’re in smaller spaces that they then have to share. So it’s harder to build those boundaries and it’s a double whammy now, too, because even if they might have otherwise been at a life stage where they wanted to move to a better place, they can’t because the startup costs for a mortgage or doing any major move can be cost-prohibitive when you aren’t certain you’ll have a job in the next month and that’s really a double whammy right now because refinance rates are about the best they’ve ever been. So having to pass up on that is another cost that this generation of young lawyers is going to be disproportionately hit by that lawyers that graduate into a more prosperous economy just aren’t going to have to face.
Jim Calloway: Well, what’s going on with student loans? Aren’t they at least in forbearance during COVID-19?
Graham Bryant: Well, you’re right, Jim. They are still in forbearance right now and they have been since March. Under the Cares Act, that was supposed to expire on September 30th, but I actually just learned that the president issued a memo on August 8th, just a couple of days ago that extends this, extends the protection, which extends deferments to borrowers of debts held by the Department of Education, so federal loans through December 31st and it waives all accumulation of interest on the loans during that period as well. So, if you have federal loans, you have a reprieve at least until New Year’s.
That doesn’t apply to private loans, unless you’ve already worked out some sort of arrangement with your loan servicer and even with that, it still might not be a good idea to defer making the payments if you can because there have been reports of credit-reporting mishaps among the big three agencies and of course, I’m sure as you guys have discussed on this podcast before, the big three credit reporting agencies never make mistakes or have big problems happen.
So, if you choose to not pay a loan even if you were allowed to buy the President’s order by congressional act, it still might get misreported and you have to spend the time getting that straightened out, so it’s still best to go ahead and pay if you can; if you can, being the operative word. And of course, student loans are a significant portion of most young lawyers’ monthly expenses and that’s in the best of times. So add on now when it may not be certain whether you’ll have a job or be able to get a job or that your salary that you were offered will remain at that rate, it can become a major, major source of stress and other than that some degree of federal relief, there’s really not much that can be done about it.
Sharon Nelson: Well, Graham, I know both of us know a lot of young lawyers who do have children and they are tearing their hair out trying to work from home. How are they coping especially with now, it took a while, but now virtually all the schools in Virginia have gone virtual, completely virtual for the time being?
Graham Bryant: Yes, young lawyers with children are I’m sure delighted to see that we’re going to be all learning from home and working from home for the foreseeable future still. There was some hope around the middle of the summer that maybe the students would be able to go back, but I think across the board, you can pretty much write off fall of 2020. And you’re right, young lawyers, they’re just simply demographically more likely to have small children that need higher levels of care than their more senior counterparts are. It’s one thing to have a teenager running around, it’s another to have a toddler.
And child care expenses are huge in the best of times. Again, we’re stacking this along with student loans and the house payments and the car payments that this demographic group is more likely to have. So now, when daycares are even harder to find due to social distancing requirements and safety protocols, it’s becoming a major problem. So the children often have to be at home all the time and distractions are unavoidable.
Earlier this year, I was interviewing some other young lawyers just to figure out how they were coping with things and one of my friends who’s a partner at a law firm down in Virginia Beach just recently made partner, she and her husband have an infant who is really just a couple of weeks old when the pandemic began and I was asking her, “All right, you’re a new partner, you’ve got to obviously keep things up, but you have a brand new child. That’s your first priority. How are you handling it?”
And she told me that the biggest challenge has just been the sudden lack of daycare facilities and the fact that she and her husband both have full-time professional jobs. So she told me that she tends to wake up really early so she can get a couple of billable hours in before their little girl gets up and then she tries to work after she sleeps. And then her husband and her set off different slots of time during the day to take care of the child during the day and that works for them. I’m glad that they’re able to do that. Some people who might have to still go into an office may not have that option and it’s really just become a tricky situation.
But I will note that having kids around in the office or in the home office, rather, is not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, hopefully you all remember the BBC dad from a couple of years ago who was doing an interview I think about Korean politics on BBC and his daughter just kind of toddled in. She was like two years old at the time in the middle of the interview and this was before the age of Zoom. I mean it was a meme for the ages. Who hasn’t had something like that happen since COVID? Kids are a great leveling factor. Everyone from like practice group leaders to the newest associates, if they have a little kid running around, the child does not notice the difference in social hierarchy and in your level at the firm, everyone’s people and they’re the center of attention. They need to be the center of attention and it doesn’t matter who they’re talking to.
I think the levity that that’s added that we recognize, okay, yes, we’re all humans and we all have lives, we all have to live somewhere and having that ever so slightly break into the legal world is ultimately a good thing for the profession.
Jim Calloway: Well, you mentioned lots of stresses. The law is a stressful profession to begin with and starting in the law has extra stresses, so how are young lawyers coping with all these stresses now combined with COVID?
Graham Bryant: Wow, you’re right. There are so many things young lawyers are dealing with right now. Professional disadvantages, cabin fever, social anxiety, fear of catching the virus, all these things are weighing on them and it creates a ton of mental stress and mental health is suffering among lawyers. That’s not news. That’s been the case for quite some time and that’s why a number of states have taken a great interest in wellness issues among lawyers. Virginia, for instance, put out a lawyer well-being report through its Virginia State Bar last May.
I was part of a team that put out that report and it struck me then that of the 20 occupational risks to law practice that we talked about, we classified eight of them as mental and emotional risks, basically mental health issues. I think one of them that is far and away the most prevalent even in the best of times and especially now in COVID is loneliness. In researching for the report, one of the things that struck me was that 61% of lawyers rank above average on a loneliness scale in a report that the Harvard Business Review put out. That makes sense. We tend to be a fairly solitary profession because I mean, ultimately even if we’re collaborating, we’re still working on projects alone and now that we’re all confined in our own home offices and only meeting by Zoom, which can still be lonely, loneliness is the COVID-19 number one mental health risk, certainly among the other young lawyers that I talk to in researching how young lawyers are coping with this. Everyone is bemoaning how lonely it gets.
And loneliness isn’t just feeling bad. It has some really negative physical effects. For instance, it can lead to depression, it can disrupt your sleep, it can actually increase your blood pressure, and over time, it can kind of change your immunity and even contribute to early mortality. Loneliness is a big deal for social creatures like humans.
So, we’re trying to cope with them. We’re trying to come together and do what we can and reports like that do have guides for what you can do to kind of address feeling lonely or feeling some of the other harmful effects but in practicality, how are your lawyers coping with it? Unfortunately, bad habits. When you’re working at home, the kitchen is right there and stress eating feels good. It releases the dopamine. It releases the serotonin. Worse, the liquor cabinet is right there.
One thing that struck me in doing some other research on young lawyer well-being is just how disproportionately alcoholism is prevalent among young lawyers. Thirty-six percent of practicing attorneys have an alcohol problem but of these problem drinker attorneys, nearly one-third of them are new attorneys younger than 30 years old. So, one-third of 36, that’s what, 12% of lawyers are in that category and have alcohol abuse issues. Junior associates and attorneys with fewer than 10 years of practice are the most vulnerable and of course, of that same group, 28% struggle with depression and 19% struggle with anxiety. So, young lawyers are not well right now.
Sharon Nelson: Well, we’re going to get to that in just a minute. You want to call a break, Jim?
Jim Calloway: Yes. Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take another quick commercial break.
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Sharon Nelson: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is COVID-19 is Brutal to Young Lawyers. Our guest is Graham Bryant, currently a judicial law clerk to Justice William Mims of the Supreme Court of Virginia and Graham will shortly be joining the Richmond, Virginia-based Byrne Legal Group in September as a Virginia appellate specialist.
All right, Graham, you really gave us up some bleak news about the non-coping of young lawyers. So, if there are young lawyers struggling with pandemic stress, where can they go and get some help?
Graham Bryant: Well, the good news is that lawyer well-being issues have been recognized here in Virginia and across the nation by bar organizations and they are taking action to make resources available. They realize that this is not sustainable and in the last couple of years, great progress has been made.
So here in Virginia, we have the Virginia Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program that used to be called Lawyers Helping Lawyers. Most other states will have a similar Lawyers Helping Lawyers or Judge and Lawyer Assistance Program and what these do is provide confidential services, counseling and help for pretty much whatever your health issue is as an attorney. It’s anonymous, it’s not connected in with the organized bar, it’s not the licensing organization, you don’t have to worry about bringing a concern to one of these organizations and then having it get reported to the bar and getting your license revoked. It’s not like that at all.
In most states, these are funded by your lawyer dues, your bar dues to remain licensed and they can deal with everything from the alcohol and substance abuse issues that we mentioned, mental health issues, they can provide some guidance on depression and even when it comes to, obviously not our demographic, but when maybe even practicing too long and cognitively, you need to retire, all of those are different services that these organizations are prepared to help. So, reach out to them. They want to help.
Students also have resources. Law students are in one of the most stressful times of their lives and only recently are people paying attention to that. But as part of this wellness revolution, so to speak, most law schools have hired or otherwise expanded their counseling services. Most law schools will now have a counselor on site and if not, the affiliated university probably will have one too and you can go to those with your issues. I think the biggest thing in our profession is trying to get over the stigma of “let me reach out for help,” and so “I don’t need that.” We’re so individualistic. We don’t want to show weakness. The profession has such a, for lack of a better word, a macho aspect to it that mercifully, over the last couple of years has been receding but certainly, it’s still there to the point where people are reluctant to reach out.
I would encourage anyone who’s facing any lawyer well-being issues to reach out to JLAP or Lawyers Helping Lawyers or a counselor. But if you are reluctant to reach out, there are some self-help options. So for instance, the Virginia State Bar’s lawyer well-being report that I just mentioned, for each of those 20 occupational risks, there are practice pointers, kind of guides for how you can take steps in your own life and how organizations whose employees are facing these risks, the steps they can take to cope with the risk and help mitigate it. And finally there are any number of mindfulness apps and techniques and other wellness resources out there. You can’t go wrong by just reviewing some out there, doing some Google searches and finding something that works for you.
Jim Calloway: Okay, Graham. Big finish here. Pull out your crystal ball and tell us what the future looks like for young lawyers who’ve had their professional development upset by COVID-19.
Graham Bryant: That’s a big ask, Jim. But I think the answer here is going to be that they’re going to continue and grow and develop in their careers but it’s simply going to be delayed compared to non-pandemic lawyers. Just like the stats that I mentioned that show that students graduating into recession are effectively several years behind their more fortunate peers, the same is probably going to hold true for this COVID class of young lawyers. But there’s reason for hope. Pandemics end and the amount of confusion and uncertainty and regulations and laws and everything else bred by it is going to fuel legal work for years to come. With some perseverance and application of best practices for promoting your career during the social distancing restrictions, I think that young lawyers have the tools at their disposal to minimize their professional disadvantage during this period.
So, although, no one can be sure what law practice is going to look like on the other side of COVID-19 and certainly is not going to be identical to practice before the pandemic, this mass experiment in working from home has put lots of stress across the board, but particularly on young lawyers. By applying the lessons that we’ve learned during this forced experiment, I think the legal field has the opportunity to really become a more flexible, efficient, and hopefully well profession.
Sharon Nelson: Well, I’m sure glad you ended on an optimistic note there and I try to remain Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms myself but I really appreciate you taking the time, Graham, to be with us today. One of the best things that happened to me in the last few years was getting to know you and being able to work with you and talk across the generational divide and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it and we’ve had a lot of opportunities to work together. So this, I know, was very useful for some of the young lawyers and also for older lawyers who want to know how to help the young lawyers and there is a lot of that going around that there really is a desire to help. But thanks so much for being our guest today.
Graham Bryant: Well, thanks so much, Sharon. Thanks for the kind words, Jim. Great talking with you. I’ve had a blast being here today.
Sharon Nelson: And that does it for this edition of The Digital Edge, Lawyers in Technology, and remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at legaltalknetwork.com or on Apple Podcast and if you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us in Apple Podcast.
Jim Calloway: Thanks for joining us. Goodbye, Miss Sharon.
Sharon Nelson: Happy trails, cowboy.
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