Much has been written about the exodus of women from the workforce as a result of COVID-19. The December 2020 jobs report, which described 156,000 jobs lost by women and 16,000 gained by men, painted a dismal picture of the impact that schools closing and businesses downsizing has had on the female workforce, said Kate Conway, President of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI).
However, the pandemic has also presented an opportunity for law firms to recalibrate and reset policies that haven’t aided women in the past. Moreover, recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce isn’t only the right thing to do, it has also become a business imperative, as more clients seek out diversity in their legal counsel.
But what do women lawyers want in a post-pandemic law firm? And how can legal organizations better support their female talent now and into the future? Kate Conway and Kristen Prinz, Managing Partner at the Chicago-based Prinz Law Firm, shared their thoughts with us.
What steps are law firms/legal organizations taking to better support their female talent during the pandemic?
(Kate) The pandemic has indeed hit working women hardest, especially women of color and mothers.
Many firms are attempting to provide more flexible hours and work from home arrangements in order to meet the needs of their working-parent employees, but the challenges remain steep.
The WBAI has made additional efforts to seek out and share job opportunities on its listserv and among its membership and is working to assist those newest to the profession as well as those in law school through mentorship to help find jobs upon graduation.
Our Membership and Legally Moms Committees also hosted multiple virtual CLE programs focused on mental health, goal setting and goal achievement, and how to avoid burnout during the pandemic.
(Kristen) Companies and law firms are communicating a greater focus on overall wellness and time spent away from work and email. However, other than working from home and words of encouragement, I haven’t seen this focus come to fruition.
Do you think our remote work during the pandemic will drive lasting change in HR policies, evaluations, or expectations?
(Kristen) Law firms are looking to shrink their office space footprint and reduce costs. This should drive lasting change in HR policies and expectations because the costs of delivering legal services will shrink.
However, increased profitability doesn’t equate to a decrease in productivity expectations. Because time is saved on commutes, there is a greater expectation of productivity. This has caused women some increased strife because there is less division between work and home life.
(Kate) I’m hopeful the pandemic will have positive impacts in accepting more flexible work hours and work from home options for working parents.
For many of us, working from home provides flexibility and time-savings by eliminating lengthy commutes and increasing accessibility to school and after-school activities.
I am aware of several firms and companies that have decided not to return to a 100% in-person office schedule, favoring virtual meetings and shared office spaces available if/when employees require a traditional office setting.
What is the WBAI doing to ensure women lawyers have the same opportunities as men? And what practices should legal organizations be adopting to guarantee these opportunities for women?
(Kate) The WBAI is doing several things to expand opportunities for women lawyers and to encourage our male members and supporters to recognize and extend opportunities to female colleagues.
First, we recognize that a strong support network and a strong referral network are critical to career success. We recently relaunched our mentorship program and offer regular networking events in order to provide our members with connections to other women in the profession. We have also offered CLEs geared toward business-getting, business development, and goal achievement to further that effort.
Second, we believe opportunities for leadership and a public voice are important for creating opportunities and visibility for women in the legal arena. Through WBAI committees, our events, and our newsletter, we provide valuable chances to be heard and seen.
Finally, our legislative committee is actively working on supporting legislative action including passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, paid family leave, and hosting an upcoming CLE on how women can (and should!) run for public office.
For other legal organizations, seeking input from and extending leadership positions and speaking opportunities to women must be at the forefront. A mindset that “women’s issues” are actually professional issues that are important to all of us must be adopted.
Post-pandemic, what are women lawyers looking for in a law firm?
(Kristen) Empathy and transparency. People don’t want to be told that a firm is culture-focused or flexible in terms of working hours if that isn’t true.
Women and men want clear expectations so that they can make an informed decision about their work choices.
(Kate) Pre- and post-pandemic women are looking for a challenging work environment with opportunities to develop and advance.
Post-pandemic, flexibility in terms of hours and remote work may be additionally appealing.
Want to learn more? The Commission will be discussing The Future of DEI in the Legal Profession at our The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference on April 27-29. CLE is offered. Register here: https://thefutureisnow.2civility.org/registration-2021/.