One of the side-effects of the current pandemic is that inboxes fill up with questionnaires asking about the consequences of what has just hit us. We are investigating the phenomenon even as it is unfolding around us.
Bar officials complain about being overwhelmed with surveys on the same topics from different organisations. So, if you want to find out how Covid-19 has affected legal services around the world, there are many sources, often with overlapping information.
The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) was an early adopter of searching questionnaires, starting from the opening days of lockdown. It publishes information from European countries on questions like whether lawyers are considered key workers, how the courts are working (including as lockdown eases), whether law firms are entitled to financial support from the government, and the impact on legal aid lawyers.
The International Bar Association (IBA) has a questionnaire out for consultation at the moment with similar questions, but also covering topics such as the impact on the bar’s own finances and operations, whether regulatory guidance has been issued, and whether regulation will be loosened or tightened to assist with the recovery of the legal services market, or indeed to assist with access to justice if fewer law firms emerge from the lockdown. The results of this questionnaire are not yet known.
The Union Internationale des Avocats, on the other hand, has published its findings – on more or less the same questions – in a more generalised country format, with traffic light colour-coding.
But the most interesting one in the pack so far has come from the American Bar Association’s Task Force on Legal Needs Arising out of the 2020 Pandemic (yes, there is such a thing), which asked just a very few questions. Its answers are probably true for this jurisdiction, too, and so are worth a brief description.
In reply to whether lawyers have seen an increase in demand for legal services as a result of the pandemic, 56% said yes and 44% said no. The topics covered in the increases and decreases are maybe obvious, but worth citing, because presumably they tell us what kinds of practice saw changes also in England and Wales during lockdown.
So there has been an increase in demand in employment and workplace issues; contracts and insurance; domestic violence and child abuse; family law (child custody disputes in particular); housing (eviction in particular); debt; immigration; education; prisoner advocacy release; and social security benefits.
There was a decrease in the number of requests for legal assistance overall i.e. new transactions, traditional in person services and traditional business/commercial cases, and in litigation.
But the good news for lawyers lies in the responses to another question: ‘Do you anticipate additional legal needs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic in the future?’ 91% said yes, and 9% said no. There is a general feeling that there is pent-up demand which will flood the legal services market once people feel it is safe to go out again. Many respondents gave the same kind of areas of demand: contract disputes; employment claims; suits claiming infection; work around new health regulations; insurance coverage; and bankruptcy.
Interestingly, many of the respondents foresaw the need to take on more lawyers in the coming period to deal with the expected flood of work.
But the unceasing stream of questionnaires does not end there. It will not end for a long time, I guess. The latest one from the IBA is on mental health. There are actually two separate surveys on the mental wellbeing of the legal profession, one for individual lawyers, the other for law firms and other legal institutions.
The kind of questions asked include: what, if any, support does your employer provide in relation to mental wellbeing at work? on balance, do you feel more or less able to talk about your mental wellbeing with your employer than before the Covid-19 pandemic? What lessons from the pandemic do you think the legal profession, and legal institutions in particular, need to learn for the future, in relation to mental wellbeing?
Yes, too many questionnaires – but the topics are important. I suspect that even the most robust of us has checked on our mental health during lockdown, since isolation is an unnatural state, unsuited to usually gregarious beings. This topic is vital for the legal profession, and of growing focus. The Law Society has excellent resources on its own Covid-19 webpage dedicated to the mental wellbeing of the profession.
It is still too early to say whether the pandemic has changed everything, as many believe, or whether we will snap back to our old lives in due course. But at least legal historians will not lack for material when the history of these days is finally written.
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member nor on behalf of the Law Society
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.