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Foster-Morales reflects on lessons learned during her Town Hall tour

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Dori Foster-Morales, president of The Florida BarAfter 20 town hall meetings in 58 days devoted to finding out how lawyers are dealing with COVID-19 stresses, Bar President Dori Foster-Morales said one lesson is that “technology is not the biggest problem.”

Since the courts stopped most in-person proceedings in mid-March, the rapid shift to online hearings has been taken in stride by most lawyers and judges.

Rather, Foster-Morales said, “The real problem is how do you balance your home and work life when they’re in the same place, and how do you have a life when you’re isolated in a pandemic?”

The Bar president based that observation on answers to polls conducted as part of the Zoom town hall meetings, and preliminary numbers indicate the attendees represent a good sampling of Bar membership.

Overall, there were 2,581 participants in the meetings. Twenty Board of Governors members helped organize the individual circuit meetings and every member attended at least one meeting. Aside from the 20 Board of Governors coordinators, there were 146 other panelists at the various meetings, with 37 judges (including the chief judge of every circuit at his or her respective circuit town hall), 79 voluntary bar representatives, 15 Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors members (one of whom also represented a voluntary bar), two clerks of court, seven legal aid representatives, three trial court administrators, one state attorney-elect, and one public defender-elect.

“I thought we got some really great information” from the discussions and Zoom polls conducted as part of the gatherings, Foster-Morales said. “I hope people understood that a lot of people are struggling, they’re not alone.”

The polls were modified as the meetings progressed, particularly after the August 5 initial meeting in the 11th Circuit. And not all participants responded to the poll questions, although a solid majority did answer.

Given seven options, lawyers mostly said the greatest pandemic challenge was establishing a home life/work life balance with between 17% and 33% identifying that as a major issue. It was followed by two other issues: isolation, identified by 15% to 32% of participants, and technology, raised by between 7% and 25%.

In most circuits, around two thirds or better (the highest was 82%) said they were doing half or more of their work from home. The notable exceptions were the Third and Fifth circuits where 44% and 55% respectively said they do more than half their work at home.

In most circuits where the question was asked, 75% to 80% said the pandemic has increased stress in their lives. The Second, Third, Fourth, and Seventh had slightly lower numbers although none was below 55%.

Generally, around a third of the participants said their income has declined during the pandemic with the numbers ranging from 17% in the Third Circuit to 57% in the 17th Circuit and 45% in the 15th Circuit. The latter two are in the pandemic’s hardest hit area in the state (the question was not asked at the 11th Circuit town hall).

In jurisdictions across the state, generally 80% to more than 90% favored continuing online non-evidentiary hearings after the pandemic, with less than half that number favoring continuing both online evidentiary and non-evidentiary hearings.

Around 90% overall said they have not made any major changes to their practice areas because of the pandemic.

Also, around two-thirds to three-quarters of participants at most town hall meeting said they had heard of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline, which offers free mental-health evaluations and up to three free counseling sessions, but only a handful said they had called.

All of the information and poll results from the meetings has been forwarded to the Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force, chaired by President-elect Mike Tanner.

Foster-Morales said she expects to mull over what she heard and learned from the town halls before extracting final lessons and thoughts.

She does, though, have some initial concerns, including the pairing of the higher reported stress levels along with the many participants who have lost income — and in a profession that already carries higher than normal pressures.

“When I see people making less money, they have home life and work life balance issues, and have greater stress, I’m worried they’re not getting help,” Foster-Morales said. “As a body, we are not comfortable with sharing and getting help. It scares me, it bothers me.”

As a trial lawyer, she misses the camaraderie of going to court, greeting people in the courthouse hallways, and having coffee with fellow attorneys. Online events can’t replace that completely, but gatherings like the town halls could lead to online connections that aren’t formal court proceedings or business or work meetings, she said.

As an example, Foster-Morales said she recently did a Florida International University Office of Engagement Cafecito remote podcast with a judge and another lawyer discussing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I wasn’t watching my words the way I normally do because the format was so casual,” she said. “I think we need to do some things that aren’t quite so formal. There doesn’t need to be so much tension.

“We were having a great conversation. We need to start doing that.”

Information, articles, and rebroadcasts of each town hall meeting can be found on the Bar’s website at https://www.floridabar.org/news/releases/2020-virtual-town-hall-meetings/.

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