Ways Lawyers Can Support The Most Vulnerable Right Now

By Dru Levasseur
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Law360 (April 2, 2020, 3:11 PM EDT) --
Dru Levasseur
Dru Levasseur
We’re in an unprecedented time. The global health and economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has led to a near shutdown of most social functioning: limited in-office work,[1] no in-store shopping, no gathering of friends, no public events. Many, many people are left vulnerable, losing work, social support systems and access to daily activities. Most lawyers, meanwhile, have job security and the ability to work remotely, a position of extreme privilege in this global standstill.

Consider what this means for your workplace, client base and communities where you live.

We each have a role to play, and it is essential that we fight for those who will be most impacted, whether they be our colleagues or our clients. Here are a few ways that lawyers can step up in a time of social distancing:

Pro Bono Work for People in Need

While the coronavirus crisis affects everybody, some people are disproportionately impacted by the changes wrought by the virus. People who face elevated health disparities due to structural racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, particularly where categories overlap, will be most impacted by overwhelmed health systems and limited health care access.

Meanwhile, the economic strain of social distancing means that many people are left without work and unable to keep up with daily costs such as groceries or rent. Health care professionals are being called upon in an unprecedented way to be on the front lines, risking their lives to help others.

What role can lawyers play in this moment of crisis?

While law firms are rightly considering the impact on employers and corporations, as well as their own operations,[2] the legal community has an important role to center people in this moment. The legal profession is unique because it has a built-in ethical standard for pro bono service.

The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct recommend that every lawyer provide at least 50 hours a year of free service to people who are unable to pay. Volunteerism is the highest calling of the legal profession, and this is the moment for lawyers to step up.

Pro bono work is needed particularly from lawyers with experience in disaster relief, health law, insurance, family law, employment law, housing, criminal justice, domestic violence, civil rights and social justice. And, the demand will only continue to grow, particularly for those people who are the most economically vulnerable and facing the worst impact.

To address the growing legal needs of ordinary Americans arising from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the American Bar Association has created a nationwide task force of volunteer lawyers and judges from across the legal profession. This Task Force on Legal Needs Arising Out of the 2020 Pandemic[3] will include up to 20 representatives from top legal organizations in the United States. The group will identify legal needs and make recommendations to mobilize volunteer lawyers to address those most in need.

The chair of the task force, James J. Sandman, former president of the Legal Services Corporation and past president of the District of Columbia Bar, said it best: “In times of crisis, lawyers help.”

Consider ways you can help those in need right now. As courts are canceling hearings, restricting access and in some cases closing doors,[4] many of us have new opportunities to shift our focus to center those most in need.

Reach out to your local legal services organization to find ways to volunteer. Ask your firm’s pro bono coordinator how you can be involved in your firm’s leadership during this crisis. Get involved with a local nonprofit that serves the well-being of people struggling to survive.

Reach Out to Those Around You

We are in a scary moment. People are experiencing increased levels of anxiety, fear and uncertainty. We all must balance how to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, while maintaining professional excellence. It can be a lot to manage, even for lawyers.

Prioritize self-care and utilize some helpful resources, such as the ABA’s Mental Health Resources for the Legal Profession During COVID-19[5] or the ABA’s well-being toolkit for lawyers.[6] You can also reach out to your local Lawyers Concerned For Lawyers or Lawyer Assistance Program chapter.

As many legal workplaces adjust to doing work online, consider ways to keep your law firm inclusive[7] during the coronavirus pandemic. Bias is real, especially in times of stress, so be sure to stay on top of your own, as decisions are quickly made to adjust to new ways of doing things.

Maintaining an equitable work environment in these times can take extra effort. Recommit to centering diversity, equity and inclusion in your workplace culture so that your workplace will have access to the broadest and most effective approaches to handling new challenges.

Reach out to colleagues, clients, community members and friends who are most at risk right now, and consider how to support them in an isolating and scary time. Home is not a safe place for everybody. In challenging times, rates of domestic violence increase. Lawyers are already anticipating a rise in the rates of divorce[8] as a byproduct of the pandemic.

Suicide risk and mental health challenges are amplified by stress. Because social distancing is key to combating the virus, people are even more likely to find themselves isolated, in danger, and facing obstacles to seeking help. LGBTQ people, particularly people of color, face heightened physical and mental health risks due to systemic racism, homophobia and transphobia. Transgender people already face a staggering 40% suicide attempt rate.[9]

Consider which groups of people will be most impacted by already challenging obstacles to health care and see how you can help.[10]

M. Dru Levasseur is deputy program officer for the National LGBT Bar Association and lead for the bar’s LGBTQ+ inclusion coaching and consulting program, Lavender Law 365. He previously served as senior attorney and transgender rights project director for Lambda Legal.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

[1] https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2020/03/20/big-law-goes-remote-updates-on-law-firm-closures-during-the-coronavirus-crisis/

[2] https://www.abajournal.com/web/article/lawyers-and-law-firms-say-they-are-inundated-with-coronavirus-related-queries

[3] https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2020/03/aba-task-force-pandemic/

[4] https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/one-federal-court-suspends-court-appearances-others-restrict-visitors-amid-coronavirus-concerns

[5] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/covid-19--mental-health-resources/

[6] https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/lawyer_assistance/ls_colap_well-being_toolkit_for_lawyers_legal_employers.pdf

[7] https://www.law360.com/articles/1253630/7-keys-to-keeping-your-firm-inclusive-in-the-coronavirus-era

[8] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-lawyers-expect-a-rise-in-divorces-after-self-isolation.html

[9] https://transequality.org/issues/us-trans-survey

[10] The National LGBT Bar Association has compiled a list of LGBTQ+ resources (listed below) regarding COVID-19, which we encourage you to share with your colleagues and friends.

Health Resources:

Answers on COVID-19 and HIV from Aidsfonds 

Community-Sourced Comprehensive Toolkits One and Two

COVID-19 for Older LGBTQ+ Adults from sage: Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders 

COVID-19 Information For People Living with HIV from California Department of Health 

COVID-19 Potential Impact on LGBTQ+ People from National LGBT Cancer Center 

COVID-19: Special Considerations for People with HIV from Infectious Diseases Society of America and the HIV Medicine Association 

Healthcare Equality Index from Human Rights Campaign 

Health Provider Directory from GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality 

LGBT Community Center Directory

LGBTQ+-Inclusive Health Clinics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

Community-Sourced Localized Resources Database

Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19 from CDC

The Coronavirus (COVID-19): What Trans People Need to Know from National Center for Transgender Equality 

What do Older Adults and People with Disabilities Need to Know? from Administration for Community Living 

For Support:

Crisis Text Line | text HOME to 741741 

LGBT National Help Center 

National Domestic Violence Hotline | 1-800-799-7233, Online Chat 

National Sexual Assault Hotline | 1-800-656-4673, Online Chat 

Online Support Group at Gender Spectrum 

Trans Lifeline 

Trevor Project | 1-866-488-7386, text START to 678678

Worship Live Streams at Believe Out Loud  

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