Three Myths the Pandemic Has Debunked: What They Can Teach Law Firms about Supporting Women Lawyers, Furthering Diversity, and Improving Profitability

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Robins Kaplan LLP

IN THIS ARTICLE, WE EXAMINE THREE MYTHS THAT THE CORONAVIRUS HAS DEBUNKED ABOUT REMOTE WORKING AND FLEXIBLE HOURS ARRANGEMENTS.

With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the legal field is in want of diversity. Change is glacial in the practice of law, a risk-averse sector where seniority and precedent dominate. But just as the Great Recession made law firms leaner and more efficient, the current pandemic has forced firms to embrace changes that they otherwise would have been loath to adopt. And though, to be sure, the lockdown has exacerbated diversity issues on many fronts—for instance, by adding to the burden of working mothers, who are now bearing the brunt of childcare and household chores—some of the adjustments that the pandemic has forced upon the practice of law have potential to be a boon for diversity upon our return to the office. Indeed, COVID-19 has debunked unspoken but entrenched myths that continue to impede diversity efforts. As we adjust to the new normal, it’s helpful to keep in mind that embracing some of these new truths can actually help the legal profession take its much-needed strides towards meaningful diversity and inclusion.

Debunked Myth 1: Face time is necessary to ensuring that workers stay productive.

Before COVID-19, face time remained a rigorous but unspoken requirement in many law firms. Because most senior partners and law firm managers climbed the ranks in a time when few people telecommuted, many still operated on the assumption that working remotely means not working at all. The lockdown has shattered that belief, allowing workers to demonstrate that they can work just as productively and efficiently at home, if not more so.

This forced experiment has significant benefits for women and diverse attorneys of all generations, but particularly among millennials, who particularly prize work-life integration, flexibility, and diversity. If mothers can balance their work with childcare while in lockdown—which requires them to also attend to their children’s virtual education—they can certainly manage to work remotely once or twice a week, outside the exigencies of a pandemic.

Further, it is a particular advantage that the pandemic has imposed remote working on attorneys of all genders. Heteronormative defaults and traditional gender norms are still well-engrained in law firms and workplaces across our country. Allowing all attorneys in all households and partnerships to take on and meet family demands furthers diversity in many facets. Parity in maternity and paternity leaves supports attorneys in all households. The same principle holds true for flexibility with teleworking.

Debunked Myth 2: Flexible hours and staggered shifts impede productivity.

Going hand in hand with the myth of the face time requirement is the idea that optimal productivity requires everyone to be working at the same time. While it can certainly be helpful to have days or times when teams overlap, the pandemic has proven what case teams staffed across time zones have long known: that it can be productive and even beneficial to have team members working staggered shifts. More than supporting attorneys with family demands, removing artificially imposed working hours also permits all attorneys to work when they are at their most efficient, thereby driving up productivity and eliminating unnecessary costs for firms and clients. In fact, with teams working across a longer window of time, there is more likely to be coverage for last-minute case emergencies and time-sensitive client questions.

Flexibility with hours will also emphasize using actual work product as a performance metric. This focus will benefit working parents and attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds who are less likely to have the comfort or time to schmooze with the boss, and who are more likely instead to devote their time to producing quality work.

Debunked Myth 3: Effective lawyering can only be done in person.

The coronavirus has also forced attorneys to handle via teleconference lawyering tasks like court appearances and depositions that have traditionally only taken place in person. The lockdown has put a spotlight on the little-appreciated fact that technological advances have allowed these tasks to be tackled ably and with great savings to clients. Although virtual depositions, for instance, are unlikely to become standard practice after the pandemic, our experiences with these technological workarounds open doors for diverse attorneys for whom traveling poses extraordinary challenges—for instance, disabled attorneys, women attorneys late in their pregnancies, and attorneys with significant family and elder care demands. Even remote meetings have proven to eliminate inefficiencies, demonstrating that there is less need for people to travel to meet in person than we previously thought. Although video meetings can certainly exacerbate gender dynamics—on Zoom, men’s voices are even more likely to dominate and subsume women’s—conference calls can be led effectively, for instance, by meeting in smaller groups and allowing turns for each participant to speak. Deployed well, remote meetings can confer an additional avenue to integrating and supporting attorneys of less represented backgrounds.

Law firms, like the rest of the world, are currently preoccupied with the large problems presented by public health and the struggling economy. But as the dust starts to settle and we turn our attention toward reopening offices, the coronavirus leaves us much to consider. Studies have shown time and again that diverse companies are also more profitable and resilient. In the current climate, it is crucial to assess our office norms with an eye towards adopting more inclusive approaches. Doing so may be the key to attracting, retaining, and supporting diverse talent—and all talent, for that matter—that can empower law firms to thrive and flourish, no matter the economy.

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