I’m part of several groups of “Law Moms,” and for the last year, one topic has dominated our group chats and Zoom hangouts: how working mothers can navigate this new normal when our childcare support system disappears. Many of the women in my groups have faced impossible trade-offs, such as stepping back from hard-earned firm positions to provide childcare. Some have attempted to patch together a solution with neighbors, friends, or family. Others have taken sabbaticals. Stepping back from firm work is risky, however, since historically, firms rarely rehire women who leave their practices, and a lateral move to a new firm is also tricky.
As a full-time single mother with a five-year-old son, these are trade-offs I live every day. Here in California, school has been remote for the last year and daycare options are limited, expensive, or simply too dangerous as a result of the pandemic. On the one hand, I’m fortunate to be in a position to work from home. But simply because I can work remotely doesn’t mean that the work I do each day has changed or lessened. I still need to be available for clients and candidates during fixed daytime hours. I’m also the primary caregiver for my older mother, and consequently, we’ve been extra careful with COVID precautions. My situation isn’t unique: it’s one shared by other women in my “Law Moms” groups, and I hear about it from candidates, too.
Even pre-pandemic, nearly every working woman faced a second job at home. Regardless of whether they have children, women are more likely to shoulder the “mental load” in a household. The specifics of this mental load vary but include tasks like grocery shopping, household cleaning, weekly meal planning and prep, and scheduling doctor appointments. It also includes task delegation and confirming a task is complete. In our professional lives, this would be called “project management,” but at home, this is just part of a long list of invisible responsibilities women carry.
Gender Bias in Legal Recruitment: Invisible Barriers Women Face
Unfortunately, many law firms still adhere to antiquated hiring and recruitment approaches that fail to acknowledge the challenges working women face. And it’s not just firms. Last year, BCG Attorney Search published a graphic on LinkedIn breaking down what different firm titles meant. They defined the “of counsel” title to be “attorneys with experience but no desire or drive to become partner,” listing “women who have left the practice” as an example next to an icon of a mother and child. The message is crystal clear: choosing to step back temporarily means you lack the drive to succeed.
BCG Attorney Search also published on LinkedIn a graphic titled “23 Types of Attorneys Prestigious Law Firms Avoid Hiring,” and included lawyers who had moved jobs, “old” lawyers, and lawyers who were currently unemployed. This graphic sparked outrage in the legal industry and runs counter to many of the diversity hiring initiatives firms currently champion. Eliminating individuals who have changed jobs or been unemployed at some point penalizes women and others and inherently restricts inclusivity and diversity.
While the outcry against BCG Attorney Search’s controversial LinkedIn posts was strong and swift, these posts also shed a light on many of the invisible barriers and double standards women face in the legal profession. A 2017 McKinsey report found that while firms may offer programs and policies to support work-life balance, such as working a reduced schedule or taking extended maternity leave, 75% of women worry that participating in these programs will negatively impact their career. They fear the inability to generate billable hours will hurt their perception as hardworking and ambitious.
At Lucas Group, we are committed to an inclusive approach to candidate recruitment and placement, including supporting the legal industry’s broader efforts to make firms more diverse and improve gender parity. This includes:
Advocating for the placement of female attorneys who have taken sabbaticals, including those due to the pandemic, rather than penalizing women for resume gaps.
Encouraging law firms to make flexible work-life programs more culturally acceptable by setting a precedent from the top down that these programs are encouraged and expected.
Catalyzing the senior-level connections and mentorship opportunities that can accelerate women’s legal careers.
As we look forward to returning to “normal” life, let’s not forget the lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic. This last year exposed the precarious support foundations upon which many of us build our careers. A loss of childcare or shift in family responsibilities, coupled with an inflexible work environment, can force women into lose-lose scenarios. Law firms have an opportunity to embrace more equitable lateral hiring policies and build a truly inclusive company culture. Recruiting agencies can be at the forefront, helping firms tap into a wide talent pool that drives success for everyone.