The pandemic may have pushed women back but it definitely won’t keep women down...
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and reporters covering the legal profession regularly highlighted the trend of female lawyers leaving private practice. Although more than half of U.S. law school students are female, only one-third become practicing lawyers and less than 20% of those practicing lawyers earn equity partner status in private practice.
In January 2020, Lori Mihalich-Levin’s Vault article, Why Women Leave Law Firms, reported "the data make clear, experienced women lawyers bear a disproportionate brunt of responsibility for arranging for care, leaving work when needed by the child, children’s extracurricular activities, and evening and daytime childcare. Any one of these factors affects the time and effort expected for a successful law practice, and the combination competes all the more for a lawyer’s time.”
Now one year later, the effects of a global pandemic have put women in law even further behind. Twenty-five years of progress growing the maternal workforce has been undone. From McKinsey to Forbes, esteemed news outlets have reported on the regression of women in the workplace.
By September 2020, more than 865,000 women left the labor force—more than four times the number of men who did the same. This new reality is having a sobering macroeconomic effect across many industry sectors. But what about women in law?
I recently reached out to several female lawyers to learn how their lives have been impacted by COVID-19.
Their stories represent a reaction to the upheaval caused by the pandemic and the roles they have assumed in order to transition in an effective way:
"The COVID-19 Pandemic reinforced the reasons why I was considering a major career change by leaving private practice for an in-house position with one of my long-term clients. I already was aware that I wanted to be living closer to my aging mother and the other members of my family in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
After the pandemic hit, I spent most of my time working remotely in that area of the Commonwealth, which confirmed the intangible benefits of being closer to my family.
From a professional standpoint, I wanted a position that involved organizational leadership and business strategy, with professional growth potential. My client was willing to create a position for me, but their offices are in Northern Pennsylvania.
The pandemic forced many businesses, including my new employer, to quickly adapt to remote working. Because the pandemic accelerated remote working acceptance and technology, both sides became comfortable that this new arrangement was feasible."
— Pamela Polacek, Chief Legal and Regulatory Officer, C&T Enterprises, Inc.
"During this time, my children were in very different stages of their lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, my oldest was a senior in high school, navigating his last year of high school via distance learning and the disappointment of not having a prom, a traditional graduation, and finally having to make the decision to defer his first year of college. My daughter, who was a kindergartner at the beginning of the pandemic, had just started her formal school journey and was getting used to being in the classroom, structure, making friends, etc. and it all came to a halt. Parenting at these vastly different stages of my children’s lives was a challenge. With my son, I went from mommy to mom coach – trying to keep him motivated and encouraged during a time of great disappointment for the both of us. For my daughter, we’ve been navigating distance learning for nearly a year and it’s been hard for her as she’s very much an extravert and thrives in the energy of the classroom – which with my best efforts cannot be replaced at home.
Working from home full-time and helping my first grader navigate what seems like hundreds of Zoom links a day hasn’t been easy. While I experienced 'mommy-guilt' working outside the home, it is still very real while working from home. To my six-year-old, it feels like I work all the time. The reality is that I’m working my normal hours (with the exception of a few late nights). However, because she finishes with class at 2 pm and I’m typically online for work until 6/6:30, to her it seems like I’m “working forever” (her words).
...I feel inspired that my work and my values are aligning and I’m able to contribute in a significant way.
Additionally, my husband’s business started to decline significantly amidst the pandemic and we finally made the very hard decision to close the business after seven years. This loss of income was significant, especially having a child headed to college. We are very grateful for the conservative financial decisions we made over the years, understanding that many families haven’t fared as well.
Lastly, I took a leap of faith and started a new job. Given the racial injustice over the course of time and especially last summer, with the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I feel inspired that my work and my values are aligning and I’m able to contribute in a significant way. I also feel empowered to bring my entire self to my professional environments – which has become increasingly important in advocating for others that look like me and other marginalized communities."
— Tahisha Fugate, Senior Manager, DEI Client Development, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP
"Mayhem is the perfect word to describe 2020. Women have been described as the shock absorbers of society – making sure all family-related things are running smoothly, carrying the larger portion of childcare and parent care – but that notion has become even more pronounced during this pandemic. It’s a real strain on families, but particularly on women who often are the caregivers – whether it’s children or parents or other family members.
...being flexible is of utmost importance right now
There have been a lot of discussions here regarding 'burn-out' and stress - especially around those women (and some of our men) that are taking on the care-giver role. The firm is focused on the mental health and well-being of its lawyers and personnel during this tough time. There has been a re-emphasis on our part-time policy: attorneys can go on a reduced schedule, albeit with a reduced salary. But that does not mean they are giving up their career track or that they’ll never make partner. A lot of women have made partner while being on a part-time schedule. And the part-time option really acts as a pressure relief valve and helps buy some sanity in a really tough time.
I know of other instances in our firm where two (or three) attorneys are job sharing...
Also, being flexible is of utmost importance right now. In some situations, job-shares are an option. I’m taking on a job-share situation with a male colleague who is on medical leave. With open communication it has been very manageable and enjoyable and the client is appreciative that they have 24/7 coverage from their lawyers. I know of other instances in our firm where two (or three) attorneys are job sharing. It isn’t something that works in every instance, but with some flexibility and good communication, it can work just fine.
From virtual war room meetings at the kitchen table to Zoom webinars with colleagues this entire experience has had a humanizing effect. Clients that once had a perception of their lawyer as a legal force sitting behind a big desk, strategically reviewing reams of legal documents now see my children reaching in the fridge for lunch. All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us how to live without having control. While that’s especially difficult for Type-A personalities such as myself, it’s been an important life lesson.
— Cristina Shea, Global Chair, Women’s Initiative Network (“WINRS”), Reed Smith LLP
While 2020 presented many challenges for women in law, it’s important to recognize the historic milestones that unfortunately were trumped by COVID-19.
In 2020, women's advancement onto public company boards continued to increase. Women now hold 24% of board seats of the 25 largest IPOs. Also, 2020 afforded us the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment. This amendment empowers women as advocates who create meaningful change – “we’ve come a long way baby!”
Today and for many years ahead, women will showcase the meaning of resilience. The pandemic may have pushed women back but it definitely won’t keep women down.
Jennifer L. Smuts is the Chief Marketing Officer at Connolly Gallagher LLP in Wilmington, Delaware. She is a member of the Delaware State Bar Association’s Editorial Advisory Committee and brought 50/50 Women on Boards, a global education and advocacy campaign driving the movement toward gender balance and diversity on corporate boards, to Delaware in 2018.