Alexandra Bachman Reflects On Her First Year Of Practicing Law During A Pandemic
Practicing Law as the Law Practices Learning
Movies and television paint a vivid image of the typical “first year associate attorney experience:” high stress, long hours, voluminous work, constant caffeine, and a parade of takeout dinners on the way home after spending more time at the office than anywhere else. As a first year associate attorney in the COVID-19 world, that vivid image was disturbed and distorted by a global pandemic to which even the most prepared attorneys were forced to suddenly adapt.
Personally and professionally, the need to adapt is one theme of this new world we occupy. To say that adaptation is a “theme” rather than a “consequence” is intentionally optimistic, which is perhaps the product of time spent practicing law. As lawyers, we have the opportunity to frame an issue in the light most favorable to our arguments. The COVID-19 pandemic is the issue, and though it’s easy to rattle off a list of friends, family, and experiences that have been stolen in these past months, we can reframe the issue and focus on at least two positive pandemic themes: adaptation and compassion.
Observing my colleagues at JMD (from an appropriate distance, of course) as we adapt to the COVID-impacted world has been stunning. The changes are swift; the changes are safety-oriented, and the changes are universal. Looking at the big picture, the entirety of the legal profession was forced, kicking and screaming, to break its patterns as courthouses closed, deadlines were extended for weeks and months, and the formerly unyielding schedule of hearings, depositions, and document productions came to a grinding halt. Although the gears have slowly resumed turning, the machine has been forever changed.
For that reason, in the COVID-19 world everyone is functionally a first year associate learning the new procedure, new technology, and new way of working both alone and together. Everyone is learning. There is no such thing as a pandemic mentor as we take each uncharted step together.
While that adaptation is in some ways unavoidable, the second positive pandemic theme, compassion, is a conscious choice.
What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside. We can all appreciate a good lawyer joke, especially during this humorless time. There are plenty more jokes where that came from, taking jabs at attorneys with the common theme being something akin to heartlessness. However, not all lawyers personify the punchline of those jokes, and fortunately for me, my colleagues at JMD are the jokesters themselves.
Lawyer jokes endure because there are people out there that bring them to life. In the time of COVID, however, that heartlessness that launched 1,000 jokes, to the extent it ever actually existed, has been displaced. The pandemic has snatched our general sense of control, leaving us to tighten our grasp on what we still have: compassion. This is an inherently adversarial profession, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and the pandemic is the collective enemy of plaintiffs, defendants, jurors, and judges.
JMD has always fielded a compassionate team of attorneys – fierce, unrelenting workhorses that go to the mats for our clients – but compassionate people with personalities, families, and lives beyond our laptops. Now, the pandemic has propelled the broader legal profession to recognize that compassion is not a crutch.
In the midst of COVID-19, compassion is the genuine inquiry between opposing counsel as to each other’s health and safety, and that of each other’s clients. It’s scheduling a deposition around the opposing attorney’s commitment to oversee their child’s education. It’s offering remote alternatives to meetings and mediations to guarantee that all involved feel safe.
Returning to the idea of the first year associate attorney experience, there was stress, long hours, seemingly endless work, plenty of coffee, and more takeout than ever, but, at least for a few months, less time at the office than anywhere else. I can’t speak to how that first year in practice compares to the “as seen on TV” image; neither is typical, though I really wouldn’t know. What I can speak to is my appreciation of this profession that has taken steps to overcome its fear of change in order to adapt to this new world and embrace its compassion and humanity. Perhaps we will ultimately establish new precedent. That’s a different type of lawyer joke.