Being a parent in Biglaw has always had its challenges, but we saw these challenges rise to new heights during the pandemic, especially for women. Even in the best of times, the legal industry has had an uninspiring record of retaining and promoting female lawyers: the National Association of Women Lawyers’ 2020 survey found that just 21% of equity partners were women. But with many women in law straining to maintain intense practices while bearing the brunt of a pandemic-induced increase in childcare demands, even that modest progress may be in jeopardy.
On a personal level, I experienced these struggles first-hand, and I don’t even practice law anymore. With two young children at home, two working parents, and little to no outside childcare help (the nanny market is almost as crazy as the lateral attorney market, but that’s another story), I found myself drowning in unchartered waters (hello e-learning)! Even when splitting the days with my husband so we could both work part-time, it was virtually impossible to get any work done while trying to balance the unreasonable and insatiable demands of my children. Thankfully, things have normalized a bit since the start of the pandemic, and for the first time in over a year, we are finally in a place where we have somewhat of a routine and the kids are out of the house for most of the day. But I will never get that 15 months of my life back, and neither will the thousands of other attorney-parents. It’s hard to quantify the career damage actually caused by COVID-19, but we do have some data which shines some light on this issue.
The toll on careers
A recently released American Bar Association survey gives some indication of the impact of pandemic stress on women and parents. The survey was administered in October 2020 to over 4200 ABA members, of whom 43% identified as female. It revealed that female respondents were significantly more likely than men to have taken on additional childcare during the pandemic (on top of the already unequal load that they were bearing pre-pandemic). Women were also more likely to report that, relative to a year earlier, they found themselves thinking more often that it would be better to work part-time or not at all. 42% of female respondents said they more often or much more often thought it would be better to work part-time, not full-time. 37% more often or much more often thought it would be better to stop working.
These effects were particularly stark for parents of the youngest children. 53% of women with children age 5 or younger reported thinking it might be better to work part-time than full-time. If these parents are having doubts about maintaining their current practices, the threat to firms’ future gender diversity at the senior levels could be significant. After all, these women are the future of firm partnerships—if the firms can retain them.
How are law firms responding?
Some firms have stepped up to provide parents with additional resources during the pandemic. In particular, firms have sought to ease some of the burden of online schooling, with support such as paying for tutoring sessions and loaning hardware for employees’ children to use. Firms have also bolstered internal peer support networks and sponsored sessions with external well-being coaches.
Going forward, firms may wish to consider making some of those measures permanent. Respondents to the ABA survey requested assistance such as back-up childcare and tutoring support, stipends to help defray childcare and elder care costs, parental support workshops, and adding more months of paid parental leave that can be taken to cover childcare gaps.
To the extent parents remain on the fence about whether to stick with their legal careers, firms will need to think creatively about retention strategies. One obvious target for improvement is flex-time and part-time work arrangements. These are hardly new concepts, but prior implementations have been uneven at best. Too often, parents—and especially women—receive the implicit message that taking advantage of these programs will permanently damage their career trajectory. This reduces participation and makes those who do shift to a more flexible schedule stand out even more. Even in situations where part- or reduced-time schedules are implemented, it’s often the case that these attorneys end up working full-time hours, without the full-time salary, further disincentivizing these types of arrangements.
Law firms need to commit to changing the culture around these programs and demonstrating that careers can thrive both during and after a stint of modified workload. If the pandemic has taught us one thing about work, it is that there are multiple ways to achieve the necessary output. Firms should extrapolate from the pandemic experience and embrace a range of flexible models. Not only is this the humane thing to do, but it’s also a smart competitive move in a tight talent market. Firms should be eager to continue to capitalize on all of the training they have invested in their female lawyers. This is a much less expensive path than driving out parents and then trying to replace them with lateral hires.
How can Lateral Link help?
At Lateral Link, we are in constant conversation with partners and associates at Biglaw firms, mid-size firms, and boutiques all over the country, so we have reliable information on which firms are most supportive of parents. All firms claim to support women and parents, but the reality is that some execute on those promises more effectively than others. If your firm is not offering the support you need, we encourage you to explore your options. A long-term law firm career is not for everyone, but if you’re feeling burned out, it’s worth learning about alternatives to your current firm before making a decision to leave the law. Please feel free to reach out to me or any of my colleagues to discuss your unique situation.