Legal Staff Productivity Up But Mental Health Declines In 2020

By Emily Lever
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Law360 (December 3, 2020, 9:02 AM EST) -- Legal support staff have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with their workloads increasing even as their economic and psychological well-being has taken a hit, according to a study released Thursday by legal tech company Athennian.

Legal support staff have managed to be more productive while working from home, but they have found it difficult to unplug, according to a recent Athennian survey. ([Nensuria])

The survey of paralegals, law clerks, legal assistants and other nonlawyer legal professionals in North America found that workers have managed to be more productive while working from home, but that this is a double-edged sword as they find it difficult to unplug, leading to risks of burnout.

According to the survey, 41% of legal staff reported their workloads had increased during the pandemic, and 65% felt their productivity was increased when working from home.

Support staff's woes began in the spring, when layoffs hit hard and workloads simultaneously went up, according to Athennian CEO Adrian Camara.

"At the beginning of the pandemic in the spring and early summer, there was a lot of uncertainty and law firms laid off a lot of support staff," Camara told Law360. "In most downturns, support staff are more easily fired."

Of the survey respondents, 6% had lost their jobs and 23% reported losing colleagues to layoffs. Over 40% of them were experiencing financial stress as they or others in their household lost income.

The good news is that the court system and law firms have overall done a good job of transitioning to digital, according to Camara, with technology being the lowest-ranked concern among respondents. But remote work has brought longer days unbounded by office hours and uninterrupted by commuting. 49% of respondents said work-life balance was their biggest struggle.

The lawyers who manage paralegals are working into the evening, with paralegals feeling the pressure or outright being told to keep up. This is not sustainable, Camara said, with 37% of respondents reporting mental health struggles.

"People are going to start to get burnt out and the leaders in law firms and legal departments need to be more intentional about the reality of the work-from-home environment," Camara said.

A remedy could be found in the "right to disconnect," a legal right to avoid after-hours work communications first codified in France that has since entered the law in Italy and the Philippines and has been implemented by a number of employers in Germany, according to Camara.

"Concepts like the right to disconnect, at a time when work and life are very blurred, are going to be important," Camara said. "Similar to privacy laws, leaders and forward thinking organizations will start to adopt them before the government pushes them through."

Decision-makers neglect paralegals and support staff in favor of lawyers at their own peril, Camara said, arguing that paralegals are more important than ever, particularly in the age of legal technology. Athennian is a legal entity management platform that prides itself on being developed "for paralegals, by paralegals."

"Paralegals tend to be closer to the data and are the primary managers of the data," Camara said. "Paralegals tend to be better with technology and better at building and operating repeatable systems."

"We see the value and the roles of paralegals increasing over time."

--Editing by Emily Kokoll.

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