As the tumultuous year of 2020 was ending, I started looking for positive stories that would provide hope for 2021. To my surprise, they were not hard to find. In reaching out to lawyers across Illinois, I found examples of how the resiliency that lawyers had developed led to increased professionalism.
Resiliency has become a buzz word for effectively dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, lawyers aren’t known for their resiliency. Dr. Larry Richard, a leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior, found that 90% of lawyers score in the bottom half of the scale on the psychological trait called resilience.
Yet, initiatives fueled by Illinois lawyers to increase access to justice, better manage work-life balance, and reckon with the profession’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) problem demonstrate that lawyer resiliency is alive and well.
Although I received these stories before last week’s events at the U.S. Capitol, I’m still energized by the steps Illinois lawyers took over the past year to ensure the administration of justice continued amid a global pandemic and social unrest.
Lawyer Resiliency Increases Access to Justice
In prior blog posts, we have discussed the disappearance of lawyers in rural areas of the state. The pandemic only heightened this disparity, as more people sought legal assistance from attorneys who may be absent from their communities. To address this issue, late last year the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA) developed the Rural Practice Fellowship Program.
When ISBA President Dennis Orsey launched the Special Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative, “he challenged the 20 attorneys, judges, and law school representatives on the Committee to address this issue,” said Lois Wood of Edwardsville, who serves as Committee Co-Chair. Over six months, the Committee – with support from the ISBA — explored solutions and developed the initiative to begin to resolve the issue of legal deserts, Wood explained.
The Committee demonstrated resiliency by using the realities of the pandemic to its advantage. “The widespread use of video conferencing technology will make it easier for lawyers to serve clients over a broad geographic area, thus allowing more lawyers to prosper in rural practice and to offer more affordable services to clients,” said Daniel Thies of Urbana, who also Co-Chairs the Committee.
Jeffery R. Hall, Partner at Hall, Rustom & Fritz LLC in Peoria, has seen the benefits of video conferencing technology firsthand. He has used it in his practice throughout the pandemic and said he’s found that “remote justice” is possible.
Back in Chicago, the legal aid community collaborated to develop COVID H.E.L.P. (Housing and Economic Loss Prevention), a free online tool that provides information about the most common legal problems caused by COVID-19.
“Working together we have been able to put a reliable legal tool into the hand of Illinoisans who are searching for legal answers,” said Pat Wrona, Director of Legal Services at CARPLS.
Increased Stress Leads to Innovative Professionalism
The legal profession can be stressful on its own. The addition of a global pandemic, adapting to working from home, moving to remote courthouse hearings, and managing children’s remote learning only heightened the need for lawyer resiliency. Leaders at organizations who have demonstrated empathy and responded with new initiatives to support their employees are shining examples of professionalism.
Perkins Coie LLP offers caregiver-support resources, such as back-up and emergency childcare stipends and curated lists of tutoring and educational resources to help working parents and caregivers adjust to their new responsibilities.
“These resources not only provided stability during unpredictable times, but they also served as recognition by firm management that helping these professionals succeed is a priority for the firm,” said Regina (Gina) LaMonica, a Partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Chicago.
In addition, Perkins Coie LLP has supported the family members of staff who’ve been impacted by this devasting pandemic. According to Jennifer Bluestein, Chief Talent Officer at Perkins Coie LLP in Chicago, through its foundation, the firm assists family members of employees who have lost their jobs and have nowhere else to turn for assistance in paying their bills.
Firms have also found that lawyers can better maximize their time and more efficiently resolve issues through new technology initiatives, thereby decreasing some daily stressors. For example, remote hearings and meetings have allowed downstate lawyers to expand their caseloads due to time saved from not commuting to various courthouses and meeting locations.
In fact, Hall believes that remote hearings encourage brevity in attorney presentations, which leads to more efficient and effective resolutions in many client cases.
Lawyers Responded with DEI Initiatives
In addition to the global pandemic, the death of George Floyd by police and so many other people of color in 2020 shook the nation. These horrific deaths forced the legal profession to take a closer look at its lack of diversity and examine inequities in the justice system.
“More than ever, the legal profession is having consistent and authentic conversations about diversity and inclusion,” said Kenny Matuszewski, Co-Founder of the Chicago Bar Association’s (CBA) Racial Justice Coalition. “The Racial Justice Coalition consists of more than 35 bar associations, legal organizations, and law student groups that have pledged to take action against racial injustice in their communities.”
The Racial Justice Coalition was developed to collaborate with leading forces in the Chicagoland legal community to act against racial injustice. Co-Founder Chastidy Burns believes that “the development of cultural competency and thoughtful consideration of the shortcomings and areas of improvement in our judicial system makes us better equipped to connect with our clients and the communities we serve.”
In 2021, Burns hopes that the legal profession will continue to prioritize the importance of grace and empathy toward the significant weight of racial injustice.
These examples of lawyer resiliency in the face of unimaginable realities demonstrate the best of legal professionalism in an otherwise challenging time. Let’s keep this momentum going as we head into 2021.
I have only highlighted a few outstanding examples of professionalism initiatives and programs developed last year. Please share others in the comments below.
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