Fifth Avenue, eerily empty

This post will be something of an anomaly.  It is more personal in nature than my usual content and (at least for me) rather short.

I am a single Asian American woman living alone in Manhattan.  As of the time of this writing, NYC has just tipped 100,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths.

As the head of Pricing Strategy globally for Baker McKenzie, I work at one of the largest law firms in the world.  From that vantage point, I bear witness to economic dislocations and operational disruptions threatening businesses all over the world.  I also belong to a global organization of over 13,000 people finding countless ways to cope with an overwhelming variety of unfamiliar pressures.

For the most part, I know that I’m as safe and well as one could wish to be for the time and place I am in now.  I also know that I am very fortunate to be able to say that truthfully.   Existentially and emotionally, I have ups and downs, like everyone else.   These are my  honest thoughts, on both the bad and the good.

Now, More than Ever, Is the Time ⏳ for 💞 Compassion and Empathy 💞

I am already tiring of hearing the word “unprecedented,” but there is really no better word to describe the situation.  As usual, I am trying to make sense of what I see through data – and I am trying my best to work out what that looks and feels like to real people.

The loss of life alone is calamitous.  Today, the 102nd day of the year 2020, the number of total confirmed COVID-19 fatalities worldwide surpassed 100,000, with confirmed case count hurtling toward the 2 million mark.  A bit closer to home, the U.S. now leads the world in both confirmed case count (over 500,000) and fatalities (over 20,000).  To put these figures into context, consider two comparisons.

  • The 9/11 attacks led to over 7,000 fatalities, with far-reaching aftereffects.  For New Yorkers who are facing a daily onslaught of horrifying news as the death rate “stabilizes at a horrific rate,” the COVID-19 death toll has already exceeded that figure within the city.
  • According to one report by Brown University, the post-9/11 war on terror led to approximately 500,000 deaths, over a 17-year period.  Worldwide, we’ve compressed 20% of those fatalities into about 100 days.

Large numbers have a way of depersonalizing and dehumanizing tragedies, so let me try to reverse that.   Dunbar’s number hypothesizes that most people have natural cognitive limit of 150 stable social relationships.  Conservatively speaking, the 100,000 deaths recorded to date will mean some sense of loss for tens of millions.

We are collectively experiencing loss of life that is uniquely paradoxical.  The death toll is surging at an intensely rapid rate, and the extent of loss feels like shock to the system, similar to a sudden but contained disaster.  But we are all settling into an extended period of existential adjustment: we are all trying to carry on with daily responsibilities while establishing new and strange routines in our own lives.  All this is happening while each of us is trying to manage  anxiety, uncertainty and loss on a daily basis.  I believe it is important for each of us to recognize the distinct implications of this paradox on our emotional state.

Every Day 📅 We Each Cycle Through Stages of Grief 💔

Death is scary, and the fatality statistics are themselves are enough to scare most people.  COVID-19 has other attributes that translate to other types of loss, some murkier and more difficult to identify than others.

Each of us, on any given day, are coping with losses of many kinds.  Some are easier to identify and name, because they are front and center.  Most people are worried about the health and safety of loved ones at higher risk: the elderly and those with underlying conditions.  More and more people are experiencing loss of financial security, as shelter-in-place orders and the new quarantine norms grind economies to a halt and send markets into shock.

Other types of loss — smaller, more personal losses — seem to pale in comparison when lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake, but they are no less real.  Broadly speaking, everyone is coping with loss of normalcy.   As #staysafe #stayhome isolation measures continue over weeks and months, all of us will feel at different moments and in different ways a sense of loss for companionship and community, and therefore loss of connectedness and belonging.  As school closures continue, most of my colleagues with children are feeling overwhelmed at the added daily workloads of keeping their families fed, cared for, entertained and now educated.  When they have time, they worry about how the loss of lived and shared experiences will affect their kids.   I’ve heard from two different friends in the past three days about the recent or imminent passing of elderly relatives; neither are able to be with their families physically to grieve.

Other types of fear and loss remain elusive for the opposite reason: they seem bigger and more impersonal, more abstract and removed.  For me, these remain unexplored and unexamined while I fill my day — with work, Netflix, cooking unnecessarily complicated dishes — until something forcibly reminds me.  For me personally, I think two incidents help make this more real.

  • About a week ago, I ventured out for a walk around my neighborhood.  The streets of Manhattan remain sparsely dotted, though there are lines curving around the block of people waiting in line to get into Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.  The lines seem much longer than they are because most stores have now imposed limits on the number of customers allowed in at once, and they’ve taped markers on the ground to ensure that shoppers maintain space from each other as they wait.  Many locations have some kind of security personnel, in some cases uniformed police offers, directing lines.  All of this seems surreal and a bit dystopian, but most New Yorkers are trying to make the best of it, exchanging pleasantries and smiles.  About two blocks from my apartment, I pass by a homeless man, and he shouts angrily at me.  He seems unstable and what he says isn’t altogether clear, but it includes profanity and the phrase “Chinese virus.”  I remember all of the news reports I’ve read about incidents involving Asian-Americans.  I also think about how the pandemic is revealing very tangible implications of economic inequality and how it is affecting our most vulnerable populations.  I try to put this incident out of mind, but I end up not going outside at all for the next few days.
  • Earlier this week, I read an article in the New York Post on the city’s  contingency plans in the event that city morgues became overwhelmed (a “dire possibility” that seems somewhat probable now).   One of those contingency plans, according to NYC Council member Mark Levine, involved temporary mass burials in NYC parks, although Mayor Bill de Blasio promptly denied the report.  On Thursday, the Associated Press published aerial photos of mass burials happening now on Hart Island, a potter’s field where interments are typically performed by inmates from Rikers Island.  The images are deeply upsetting to many, as they were for me, because they seem to indicate a loss of control at a societal level and some symbolic breakdown of important norms and customs.

Moment by moment, we are confronted with a dizzying number of emotional and intellectual dislocations, and that means we are all under much greater loads of both emotional and cognitive labor.   Much of that labor takes the form of grief: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.   That construct helps to explain the many different reactions we are seeing play out in public and private spheres, but it also makes a strong case for each of us to prioritize compassion and empathy, for ourselves and for everyone we encounter.   In a time when threat to life and safety permeate our surroundings, our humanity matters more than ever.

There are, however, still a few bright spots to life in New York City, even in the middle of a pandemic.

  • 🙏👏📣🙌 Every day at 7PM, the entire city seems to explode with cheering and applause, a daily cacophony of thanks for healthcare workers putting their lives on the line to serve the public.
  • 🌈🌈🌈🌈 All over Brooklyn, residents hang scribbled and drawn rainbows in their windows to add a bit of brightness for children (and their parents) out on walks in a time when playdates and playgrounds remain off-limits.
  • 🌦️🌱🌼🌷 Even amidst human angst and suffering, winter is giving way to spring, usually a magical time in New York City.   On some days, it seems incongruous and even cruelly impersonal, but on most days, seeing a spot of flowers blooming or the trees turning green remind me that this, too, will pass.

Living in the eye of the storm, I’m both astounded by the instances of resilience I encounter every day, and acutely aware of the fragility that is holding it all together.  Everyone is extraordinarily taxed and stretched right now.  We are all a bit frayed, and each of us are in greater need of patience and kindness.   The best way – and maybe the only way – forward might be for each of us to give a little more than we take: to pause, take a breath and a moment to recognize our shared humanity; to give everyone we meet the presumption of good intent and best effort; and to extend a little more care in how we treat others in both public and private spheres.

Now, more than ever, is a time to be kind to ourselves and to each other – because being alone is only bearable if we are truly in it together.

The More Fortunate Among Us Still Have Work to Do, Right Now 😓 and None of Us Do It Alone 💕

Living alone in New York during social distancing is an advanced exercise in solitude.  There are moments when I feel profoundly alone.  But for the most part, the pandemic is showing me in many familiar and surprising ways that I am part of a greater whole.

More than once in the past few weeks, I’ve stopped in the middle of the day and wondered how we can expect people to keep working through this crisis.  Each time, though, I’ve taken a deep breath and gotten back to it.  I keep trying because I believe that the work I’m doing has both meaning and impact.  I am able to keep trying because I am blessed with many support structures, both professionally and personally.

#PandemicLife at a Global Law Firm

I joined Baker McKenzie 15 months ago, and since then, I’ve not had much time or headspace to devote to speaking or publishing.   For those of you wondering (a) where I’ve been and (b) what I’ve been up to, the short answers are: (a) all over the world, and (b) working really hard on complex and interesting stuff.   This post isn’t the time or place for those particulars, although I do plan to share more in coming months.  Today, I do want to share a few observations that are more topical.

One of the reasons I gave for joining Baker in the first place is that I believe it is the most global law firm in the world, in not only footprint but in our history and our culture; my personal experience in my time there has more than borne this out.

  • We currently have 77 offices and 4 centers in 44 countries all over the world, and while that injects a unique level of complexity to our operations, it also gives us unique perspectives and what I see as fairly unique pathways to resilience.  Given our significant presence in Asia Pacific, we not only had reason to track the pandemic early, we also have experiential insights and guidance from leaders who managed operational and commercial responses to SARS.
  • Converting a global workforce of 13,000+ to remote work is… complicated.  I am constantly impressed at the operational choreography and cross-functional coordination required to just to keep the place running around the clock and around the world.  Here I’ll just attest to the fact that it takes a fairly large and high-caliber team that is entirely dedicated to actual teamwork to make it happen.
  • Particularly for me in the pricing arena, I’ve found the scope of our business and the composition of our global client base to be intellectually taxing in the normal course of business; with the current level of volatility and uncertainty, those complexities are orders of magnitude greater.  That complexity does offer an upside: we sit at an incredible vantage point to observe structural transformations in the global economy.  From my vantage point at Baker McKenzie in these uncertain times, I feel very certain about one thing.  Life after coronavirus will not be the same, because the world will be a different place… more on this in a bit.

Simply put, operating a global law firm is not easy, but that inherent degree of difficulty pushes us to be better, and perhaps because we recognize those challenges, we do have collaboration in our DNA.  I am enormously grateful to be working with colleagues all over the world who value each others’ wellness enough to check in unprompted, who constantly seek to learn from the experiences of others, who accept at a fundamental level that teams and organizations are stronger together than apart.  In this strange time of unimaginable isolation, that togetherness is more important than ever.

#PandemicLife in the Legal Industry

The ecosystem around legal innovation is fluid, amorphous, more than somewhat decentralized with many cells and nodes that are isolated from others.  In many cases, it is only loosely connected by a sense of community, and the mechanics of those connections often rely on more than somewhat serendipitous collisions of people and relationships (… and to some extent by the the constant sound and fury of #LawTwitter).

The added pressures of COVID-19 aside, I feel truly blessed to be navigating the ups and downs of professional life with an amazing community of co-conspirators and fellow travelers (just a few pictured here):

And thanks to the magic (!) of videoconferencing, I still feel enormously supported and connected even amidst a pandemic:

For now, however, I’m finding encouragement and inspiration more consistently in private forums and less so in public channels, although I am generally trying to portion control my news and social media consumption overall.  Even in the best of times, we complain rather a lot about an overabundance of hype and of echo chambers in legal, with many voices consistently decrying the overall stagnation and change resistance of the profession and industry as a whole.  To be fair and honest, there is (a lot of) room for improvement and plenty of chances to be critical.   On the whole,  we can and need to do better.  On this, my thoughts remain as they’ve generally been.

Stating the Obvious: We Are NOT in the Best of Times

In the past 3 weeks, more than 50 law firms have announced a variety of austerity measures, ranging from furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts for staff and associates as well as reduced or deferred partner distributions and in a couple cases, capital calls.  The legal trades and blogs are covering these developments diligently each day.  In keeping with longstanding tradition of the press at large, the legal press hasn’t always been great at telling us what to think — but it remains very effective in telling us what to think about (if only by means of constant news alerts spamming inboxes industry-wide).   In these extraordinary times, I am increasingly ambivalent as to the cadence and focus of this around-the-clock tabloid-style coverage, and increasingly concerned about the tonality and myopic focus of the dialogue that tends to follow.  While most commentators remain sympathetic and concerned for individuals who are adversely affected, many grim prognostications for legal business remain tinged with undertones of righteous vitriol and casual schadenfreude, if not downright vindictiveness.

It bears repeating that these aren’t the best of times, but I also feel sure they’re not the worst of times either.   Everywhere across the legal ecosystem, people are self-organizing to support each other and to find ways to help those most impacted by and least equipped to cope with the ravages of COVID-19.   As we make the transition from reacting in crisis mode to a place we can act with more intention and purpose, I’m hopeful we will see these efforts come together with more coordination and to greater effect – and for the spotlight to swing away from cynical commentary on how we’re #DoingItWrong and more toward appreciative inquiry on how we can actually #MakeLawBetter.  (Please click this link).

Hot takes and clickbait usually favor reductive narratives over constructive analysis.  Often, those narratives are about assigning blame, because that taps into a righteous vein of anger, which can feel good and cathartic amidst pain and loss and suffering.   But blame is intrinsically divisive – and divisiveness is dangerous in a time when people are dying en masse and we are each of us precariously keeping at bay the fear of more pain and loss and suffering.  In a few weeks, when the worst is behind us and bodies aren’t piling up in the streets of Lombardy or into temporary mass graves in New York City, there will be time enough to decry all the structural follies of the legal industry, to demand accountability from those in positions of responsibility, and to debate (again) all the ways in which lawyers have done it wrong for decades.

Now is not that time.  If anything, now is the time to ask how our words and actions might help someone in need.

Now, if ever, is the time for optimism and solidarity, for kindness and courage, for compassion and empathy.

🏗️ Rebuilding a Post-Coronavirus World 🌏

The dislocations caused by this pandemic are structural, and the aftereffects will be both lasting and wide-ranging.   If we are to rebuild our lives, economies, and societies to be better equipped and more resilient to calamities like COVID-19, there are many, many lessons we need to learn.

To give a flavor of what I mean, I leave you with 5 more charts.

1. We are more connected and interdependent than we realize.

In an era where nationalist rhetoric is rising to curb the tide of globalization, COVID-19 reminds us that some of humanity’s greatest threats recognize no national boundaries.  On the other hand, a baseline commitment to international cooperation where needed offers immense potential for humanity to rise to meet those challenges.

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2. Even in highly volatile, uncertain, complex situations… our decisions and actions have consequences.

I am a naturalized U.S. citizen – America is the country I chose and where I live now.  South Korea is where I was born.

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In 2020, both are, by every measure, highly-developed industrialized nations with world-leading economies and democratic forms of government.  The coronavirus response of each could not have been more different in strategy, execution, communication – and efficacy.  If we learn nothing else from this tragedy, I hope that at least some of us will learn that what we do actually matters: as individuals and as constituents of the body politic, we make choices.  Those choices have consequences.

One of the most important choices we make are those we make together as an electorate.   Setting politics aside, making good policy matters – and executing that policy through effective administration matters.  Whether you believe in big or small government is your prerogative, but I hope we can all agree after this ordeal that we need government to be effective regardless of its size.

3. The  work to rebuild policies and social safety nets for the #nextnormal will test our values.

Some have called coronavirus “the great equalizer” because the illness strikes the rich as well as the poor.  This is, of course, not entirely accurate.

In many places across the U.S., COVID-19 is revealing structural disparities that place black Americans at far greater health risks.

And the economic impacts are unevenly distributed, with middle- and low-skilled jobs bearing far greater impacts from the economic slowdown.

The truth is far more uncomfortable, though perhaps not as uncomfortable as the questions that follow.  What does it mean to be American if you are a person of color or from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds?  How can we do better by the increasing numbers of Americans who find themselves vulnerable to social and economic displacement?

4.  The pandemic will manifest as an abrupt Darwinian event in many sectors.

This downturn will be different from recessions of the past.  Like the virus that triggered it, the global slowdown of the real economy (the actual decline in the money-making and spending activities of individuals and businesses alike) is novel — an entirely new phenomenon for which we have no pre-existing body of data, models, or knowledge.

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The resulting shocks to the economy have been staggering.  Through the end of March, U.S. hotels booked revenue loss upwards of $880 billion due to COVID-19; for comparison, the collected revenues of the AmLaw 100 last year are somewhere near $90bn.   In late March, Goldman Sachs projected a 25% decline of U.S. Gross Domestic Product for Q2 of this year; earlier this week, JPMorgan revised their forecast to reflect a 40% contraction.  The aftereffects will hurt a lot of sectors; some companies likely will not survive.

Of course, structural transformations will follow, and perhaps we will see acceleration in some of the trends that have been long forecasted around the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but we can’t take all that for granted.  Changes of this type are likely to come and would be to the good.  Pandemic or not,  however, those changes will still take commitment, persistence, and lots (and lots) of work.  In other words, it will take people working together to make that change – for many people to be the change they want to see in the world.

🤔 Final Thoughts… and a New Hope, Always 💖

Man is by nature a social animal… Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.   Aristotle

I am not one to reach for a silver lining to every cloud; peering at the dark clouds hanging over not only New York City but the entire world, I am hard pressed to see anything silvery.  I do believe, however, that each of us, separately and together, can emerge from this experience with lessons learned.  If enough of us also emerge with renewed commitment to shared values, then I also believe we can make positive change to build a world that is better prepared and better equipped for the next challenge to come.

To me, the experience of living in New York in the time of coronavirus has meant some sad days spent with angst and anxiety, but also an opportunity for greater self-awareness, clarity, and perspective.   Whenever this strange period in our lives might end, I know I will venture out of my apartment with more gratitude for the many gifts of life in this greatest of cities, for the handful of people who give my own life meaning, and for the billions of strangers who make up the amazing world in which we all live.

Until then, please stay safe and be well.  🙏 Thank you for reading, as always.