The Old Normal
Before the global COVID-19 pandemic, most law firms frowned upon working remotely. When female attorneys requested a flexible work schedule for either child care and/or family responsibilities such as caring for an aging parent, they were viewed as not taking their career seriously. Additionally, big law firms characterized these females as being on the “mommy track” and often excluded them from the partnership track.
According to the ABA 2020 report Left Out and Left Behind, the representation of women at the equity partner level has stagnated at 20% for years, and only 2% of equity partners are women of color. Just when law firm leaders started having regular and frequent conversations on how to address systemic gender racism in the legal profession, the world came to a screeching halt from the pandemic. Some analysts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will undo some of the advancements in leadership for female lawyers, especially for female lawyers of color.
In early 2020, the rapid spread of COVID-19 caused all nonessential businesses to stop in-person operations and forced millions of employers to send their employees to work from home. This was very challenging for the legal industry. Naturally, some law firms fared better than others. However, many firms struggled because of technological inefficiencies and the dependency on paper files. As a result, millions of employees saw their hours reduced and/or lost their jobs. This created an economical downward spiral as the COVID-19 mortality rate climbed.
Luckily, forcing all attorneys as well as staff members to work from home created a “new playing field.” Granted, this field was not completely leveled. However, female attorneys did not have to struggle to “lean in” or fight for a “seat at the table,” since all conferences and meetings took place by way of video conference. Since school and child care facilities were also closed, women lawyers had access and participated in meetings from home. Unfortunately, this new “playing field” did come with the hefty cost of stress, burnout, and the lack of work-life balance.
In American households, women are still the primary parental caregiver, in addition to responsible for domestic chores. Even though both parents worked from home, most women continued their pre-pandemic responsibilities, as well as a few new ones. One major adjustment was helping educate their school-aged children, since children also were forced to attend school from home. To deal with heavy caseloads, women lawyers often worked longer and later hours during the pandemic. This strained lifestyle led to mental fatigue and was a nightmare of juggling responsibilities, especially for women.
In a survey during the 2021 ABA Midyear Meeting, 53% of women with children five years old or younger and 41% of women with children ages 6 to 13 considered working part-time. Unfortunately, for professional women of color, this is not an option. Many professional women of color tend to have more financial responsibilities when it comes to their household, in addition to their extended family.
Therefore, as we emerge from the pandemic darkness and firms begin to reopen and bring employees back to work, things are not looking bright for women, especially women of color. In particular, the lack of flexible work arrangements and not having the option to continue to work from home could lead to a mass exodus of women from law firms especially big law firms.
The New Normal: The Hybrid Workplace?
As law firms and other businesses begin to reopen, many organizations are taking a cautious approach and are considering reopening in a hybrid workplace. This is a new concept for most industries, especially law firms. According to a recent McKinsey and Company survey, 40% of employees have not received any communication about a hybrid work model, and another 28% of employees stated that what they heard about the new work model is vague. Although this model may ease the fears of contracting COVID-19 in the workplace and provide flexibility, the lack of clarity is creating added stress and anxiety. Adding to the stress is the knowledge that schools, daycare facilities, and afterschool activities are not back to “normal” and are dealing with similar issues.
Without a defined return-to-work plan and/or bringing workers back to the office under the pre-pandemic work model, women of color will likely suffer more than non-minority women due to the extra financial burden. Women will be forced, once again, to make a choice between their family and their career. Similarly, if given a choice to continue to work from home, women will once again be placed back into the category of “not taking her career seriously.” Additionally, partners will more likely give top assignments to attorneys who are physically in the office rather than jumping on Zoom or emailing the assignment to a remote attorney. A certain level of mentoring between senior partners and junior associates also takes place face-to-face, an aspect of work that has not been mastered in a remote environment.
Firms should develop a comprehensive hybrid work model, in which flex-time/part-time work options are not viewed as “mommy tracks.” In addition, firms should redesign their compensation models, as well as create a more inclusive evaluation process based on productivity and skillsets, and not the lawyer’s work location. By not doing so, the numbers in the McKinsey/LeanIn 2020 report on women in the workplace, where 25% of women in the workforce “are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable [before the onset of the pandemic]: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely.” This would create a major setback to the progress made regarding women attorneys, and particularly women of color.
About the Author
Cynthia Thomas is the executive director of PLMC & Associates, a law firm management consulting firm in Newbury Park, CA. She is the associate editor of Law Practice magazine, the co-chair of the ABA LP Lawyer Leadership and Management Committee, as well a member of the ABA’s GPSolo eReport Board.