I don’t know that I have ever begun a column with greater conflict in my heart and my head about what to write.
In the past year we faced the unimaginable challenges of COVID-19, the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd and the deep political and cultural divisions following the November elections. We saw further erosion of public confidence in the news media, our courts, our elections and our democracy. If all of that was not bad enough, the new year dawned with a riotous attack on our Capitol that reminded many of us of our darkest feelings from the 9/11 attack.
As I was anticipating this column, I began thinking about my own New Year’s resolutions for 2021, and I was bit surprised to realize that I didn’t have any. It wasn’t that I had any shortage of things that I should improve. It was more a matter that I didn’t have the emotional energy to declare resolutions and then follow them. I found that my mind has been set on the task of merely getting through this new year until some form of normal can return. In talking to friends and family, I found a similar situation. Very few of them were declaring resolutions this year. It was almost as if a malaise had set in, and most of my circle (like me) are simply committed to getting through 2021 and returning to normal.
So it is against this backdrop that I must exhort myself and all of you as members of the legal profession to shake off the malaise and resolve to charge ahead into 2021 with the renewed vigor to get through the mountain of challenges and to do what we can to make things better. Here are my suggestions:
1. Summon courage: We must all do all we can to restore civility in discourse and to attempt to heal the wounds that divide us. We must have the courage to speak up and to act when others are silent or when others are speaking against our democracy and the institutions we serve. We must call on our skills of persuasion and tact to provide information to the uninformed or misinformed. We must do it in a way that is helpful and not didactic or patronizing.
2. Protect our civil rights: We have to begin with the understanding that every person we encounter has a differing view of the scope of our civil rights. Some, for example, may believe that the law does not allow any limitation on our right of free speech, our right to bear arms, our right to congregate and our right to protest. There are others who believe that the public good allows all kinds of restraint of our rights if it is necessary to protect the public. The reality is that there is a middle ground, and we lawyers are the ones who must protect that middle ground. We must speak out forcefully against extremism on either end of the spectrum. Again, that may require courage.
3. Reopening our courts: Our judiciary, our right to jury trials and our personal legal practices will be impaired if we cannot reopen our courts when the time comes. We have all appreciated everything that our judiciary has done to keep all of us safe from the dangers of COVID-19. Indeed, virtual hearings, depositions and mediations have saved our clients money, and in many ways they have worked well. To a degree, we may want to continue the use of virtual platforms in the post-COVID era, but we will eventually have to get out of our PJs and suit up and come back to practicing law in person. Every one of us who enters the courts as part of our practice must cooperate and innovate when the time comes to reopen the courts.
4. Support for our bar associations: Our bar associations have suffered terribly from the stay-at-home orders and the necessities of COVID. A strong legal profession needs strong bar associations. Every one of us must renew our dues and re-engage in bar association activities. We must encourage our younger lawyers to join and get involved. This is an imperative that we cannot ignore.
On a personal level, we are going to have to reopen our law firms, restore and maintain our law firm cultures, and resume the duties of running and supporting the enterprise of law. It won’t be easy. Many of us (and I am one example) have grown comfortable working from home. We have adapted to virtual meetings. We have not missed our commutes. The return to normal is probably going to be a new normal that is a combination of work-from-home and from the office. However we do it, in-person face time is going to be important to our efforts to train and mentor our teams. So, in anticipation of returning to normal in 2021, here are a few quick tips:
Refresh your practice metrics: If you have gotten too relaxed, then do all you can to re-energize your efforts to keep diaries and calendars and to meet deadlines. Remember to be responsive. Move your cases. Be results-oriented. Refresh your skills as a problem solver.
Establish social media discipline: Many of you this past year, like me, have used social media more than before as a means to have a social outlet. It has been fun, but it has also been frustrating as social media has become a platform for protest. All of us need to have the discipline to make sure that our “brand” on social media is the one that best represents us. Social media is not just for fun — it is also a marketing tool. Take a close look at how you use social media and improve your practices.
Check your connections: Because we have worked from home, we have not connected on a personal level with our law firm staff and colleagues. The same may be true for our clients and our referral sources. It is time to begin reconnecting in any manner that works for you and for them.
Be ready for the avalanche: As COVID diminishes and the courts and the world reopen, there will be an avalanche of demands on our time. Take a look ahead and see if you can anticipate what your avalanche will be, and do what you can to prepare for it.
Budget: If you don’t take the time to prepare and to maintain a budget, do it now. There are many expenses that we have saved in 2020, and many of them will return. The lawyers and law firms that have budgets will be far better off than those who have not anticipated the return to normalcy. Enough said.
In summary, we have not yet emerged from any of the challenges that 2020 threw at us. But we will emerge. Every aspect of the challenges of 2020 has impacted lawyers, and we have to be leaders in our communities and educators about our constitution and our democracy. We all need to be part of the reconstruction that is ahead. #WillYouBeThere?•
• John Trimble (@indytrims) is a senior partner at the Indianapolis firm of Lewis Wagner LLP. He is a self-described bar association “junkie” who admits he spends an inordinate amount of time on law practice management, judicial independence and legal profession issues. Opinions expressed are those of the author.