How to Prevent Women Lawyers From Practicing Their Way Out of the Pandemic

Woman walking down stairsThe effects of the pandemic on women lawyers, especially mothers, have been documented by many surveys and articles over the last year.

However, a recent American Bar Association report “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward” is valuable because it includes action items for employers and lawyers to cope with the challenges brought on or revealed by the pandemic.

“New Normal” survey of lawyers

In September and October of 2020, the ABA surveyed more than 4,200 lawyers across the U.S. about their expectations, concerns, and goals, reflecting the context of the pandemic.

At that time, more than half of all respondents worked from home 100% of the time and expressed a high level of worry about employer support, client access, and developing business. They also reported a high level of stress in managing work and home requirements in the face of billable hour obligations that hadn’t been reduced.

Forty-two percent of women lawyer respondents said they lived with one or more dependent children. And lawyer parents, especially mothers, reported feeling tremendous pressure around handling both child and elder care and their jobs.

Women are looking for more support

The survey found that lawyers are feeling higher levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout due to the pandemic—women more so than men. These results are consistent with survey results from a study by Justin Anker and Patrick Krill, as we’ve written about before, along with data showing women are exhibiting an alarming level of risky drinking and thoughts about leaving the profession.

In response to questions about resources needed going forward, women said they want more supportive and engaged employers, comprehensive plans for sick and family leave, and subsidies for childcare, tutoring, or family care.

Interestingly, a small minority of respondents (17%) considered a policy that lowered required billable hours important. However, there were significant differences among women. Twenty-six percent of all women respondents and 34% of women respondents with children characterized a lower billable hour requirement as “very” or “extremely important.”

The report notes that “women lawyers who are shouldering the disproportionate burden of childcare and homeschooling are more anxious about meeting billable hour requirements and that their performance evaluations and compensation will be harmed because of an inability to manage their workload during the pandemic and meet client demands.”

Moreover, women and lawyers of color expressed much less optimism than their male and white counterparts about the legal profession, which may be a harbinger of concern for the future of diversity in the legal profession. Women and lawyers of color reported high levels of disengagement from work and more doubts about whether it was worth staying in the profession.

Best practices for employers

While this data mirrors that reported by other organizations, the ABA’s report goes further to provide 10 actionable recommendations for employers and 7 for individual lawyers.

We’ll start with best practices for employers in supporting their teams.

  1. Be engaged, transparent, and accountable. It’s time for leaders to pause and rethink the structure, policies, and practices of their organizations. “Going forward, organizations need to better understand how to foster resilient, effective, and gritty teams that can work well together, rather than a culture where lawyers are siloed, rarely interact at a personal level, and are prone to hoarding work or clients for themselves.”
  2. Make decisions that will have a real impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The survey data showed potential for an exodus of diverse talent, revealing that over 52% of women lawyers feel stress at work on account of their gender and 47% of lawyers of color feel stress at work on account of their race or ethnicity. Organizations that don’t have a meaningful number of women lawyers or lawyers of color at senior levels should ascertain the reasons why and develop steps to remedy the disparity.
  3. Have frequent, transparent, and empathetic communication. To address stress and disengagement, employers should: a) apprise attorneys and staff of the organization’s current and future goals, opportunities, and challenges; b) ascertain with empathy how team members are doing and whether they need any accommodations on deadlines; and c) as offices re-open, communicate expectations about returning to the office, available options to continue working remotely, and that health and safety are a priority.
  4. Create clear written policies about work expectations. The absence of office-based work has changed our previous understanding of a workday. Therefore, to guard against increased stress, anxiety, and burnout, organizations should implement written policies to establish reasonable times for meetings, phone calls, and responses to emails received outside normal business hours and encourage lawyers to take time off.
  5. Take the long view about retaining lawyers through part-time and flex-time policies. The report characterizes current part-time and flex-time policies as outdated and inimical to the career interests of lawyers and of their employers. It notes that lawyers (usually women) who take advantage of part-time and flex-time policies have limited advancement opportunities, as they’re viewed as being on the “mommy track.” And the survey shows men want more flexible working arrangements too. Leaders should recognize that lawyers’ careers span many years and should both support workplace flexibility and model flexibility in their own work schedules.
  6. Use metrics to measure the success of change in the workplace. Many women lawyers with children feel they’re being ignored for assignments or other development opportunities. The report urges firms to establish metrics to track how lawyers are faring in terms of receiving important matters for significant clients, regular and meaningful feedback, as well as other professional growth opportunities.
  7. Reassess compensation systems. Compensation systems should reward behavior that demonstrates the values of the firm. The report states that many law firms are re-assessing their compensation systems to place a greater emphasis on efficiency, quality of work, and teamwork and less emphasis on the billable hour.
  8. Provide greater parental resources and support. Lawyers with children, especially mothers with young children, face daunting challenges in juggling work, schooling, and family care. The report details many suggested resources and policies to support parents, including back-up childcare and tutoring support, parental support workshops, and adding more days to personal time off.
  9. Strengthen wellness and mental health programs. The report outlines many relatively low-cost avenues for employers to support the well-being of their lawyers, including workshops by specialists, a platform for working parents to share ideas and support, and social activities to drive community and a sense of belonging. The ABA Practice Forward website provides many wellness resources as do many other legal organizations.
  10. Provide excellent technical and administrative support for remote work. The survey showed that technical problems, such as dealing with unstable internet access and equipment that isn’t office quality, have been a source of frustration for lawyers and staff alike. If remote work is a mainstay, employers should provide state-of-the-art technology and assistance when glitches occur.

Best practices for individual lawyers

The report also includes some straightforward best practices for individual lawyers to move forward productively despite stress and uncertainty.

  1. Set realistic expectations for yourself and others. Attorneys, especially primary caregivers, should adjust their goals for what can reasonably be accomplished. It’s important to be upfront with your supervisors if any personal issues are interfering with the timely completion of work so that an agreed-upon timetable can be established.
  2. Negotiate boundaries at work and home. If you repeatedly receive assignments or are asked to respond to emails or phone calls after hours, be clear about acceptable time frames with your supervisor or client. Enlist sponsors or other colleagues to help fashion an approach that will be positively received. Similarly, have conversations with your partner, children, and other family members to establish clarity around home and family responsibilities, workspaces, and schedules.
  3. Know when to ask for support. Reach out for any resources you may need to complete a task. Confirm that deadlines are real and not artificial, which can create unnecessary stress and result in an inferior deliverable.
  4. Stay visible with clients, partners, and other lawyers in the firm and the legal community. Given that remote work provides few opportunities for in-person interactions, stay in communication by phone or video rather than only email. Reach out to clients, mentors, sponsors, and other lawyers in the firm, offering specific ways you can help, such as writing an article or providing a link in furtherance to a recent discussion.
  5. Be proactive about your career. The pandemic has provided an opportunity to reassess your goals and identify your strengths, weaknesses, and the steps you need to take to achieve your ambitions. Now may be a good time to develop new skills or pivot to a different practice area.
  6. Take care of yourself. These are stressful times, and it’s important to take steps to promote your resilience. (At the Commission on Professionalism, we have written many times before on the benefits of meditation, yoga, and other self-care measures.) If you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, loneliness, drinking, or substance abuse, seek out assistance. Most states have Lawyers’ Assistance Programs; in Illinois, help is readily available by contacting the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program.
  7. Volunteer. The pandemic has uncovered how lawyers can be instrumental in providing pro bono service to the increasing number of people in need. Research has shown that volunteering also provides physiological and psychological benefits to the person who is doing the giving.

No one person or organization has the roadmap to success in navigating the pandemic and beyond. But the recommendations in this report point us all in the right direction.

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