Could the pandemic be good for female lawyers? At first glance, the answer to this question certainly appears to be no. But by irrevocably disrupting the status quo, COVID-19 may also have created a new pathway towards greater gender parity.
Pandemic Underscores the “Impossible Trade-Offs” Women in Law Face
Last fall, the ABA reported that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting female lawyers, especially women of color. Women are more likely to assume the roles of primary caregiver and homemaker, in addition to climbing the corporate ladder in a demanding legal career. When the pandemic closed schools and severely limited childcare options, women were pushed into no-win positions, ultimately forcing some to leave their firms.
These work-from-home challenges compound well-documented attrition and promotion challenges. While women account for just overhalf of all law school graduates and 40% of first-year firm classes, they continue to be underrepresented in senior positions. Representation of women at the equity partner level has stagnated for the last decade, hovering at 20%. Just 2% of equity partners are women of color.
Historically, when women depart from big law firms, this departure is permanent. Firms rarely rehire attorneys who leave their practices, and it has been difficult if not impossible for female lawyers to make a lateral move to a new firm following an extended sabbatical. This approach fails to acknowledge or accommodate the unique challenges faced by women lawyers, especially working mothers. Now, the pandemic may finally be a catalyst for long-overdue change.
Towards a More Equitable Future
Traditionally conservative law firms have implemented more changes in the last year than the last decade. While we all look forward to a return to “normal life,” the legal industry as a whole – and big law specifically – has an opportunity to make this a “new normal” that helps us move forwards towards greater gender parity. Here’s how:
Rehiring women lawyers. Firms that have been reluctant to hire attorneys with resume gaps will need to rethink this approach. This includes considering the reasons attorneys took time away from practicing in the first place. Women who stepped back are eager to return, and firms should be equally eager to tap into this exceptional talent pool, especially as the demand for qualified associates returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Embrace flexibility from the top down. Pre-COVID, most firms were reluctant to allow remote work. While some firms offered flextime, women were reluctant to take advantage of these programs for numerous reasons, including concerns that doing so could hurt their promotion potential. Options were available in “name only.” Part-time associates often had no more control over their schedule than their full-time counterparts. This lack of schedule control defeats the purpose of a part-time position, since there are specific times of day when it’s difficult for a working parent to be available. With many firms still remote, company culture is shifting. Senior leadership must foster a culture where taking advantage of flexible work opportunities is encouraged and expected, rather than penalized.
Rethink “up or out” culture. Large law firms are traditionally rigid in their class year structure. The “up or out” culture seen in Big Law disadvantages female attorneys who are forced to make significant trade-offs between career success and their personal lives. External hiring for men and women at junior-level positions is almost equal, but men are more than twice as likely to be hired for non-equity partners and counsel-level positions. Considering more experienced attorneys for senior associate roles should be normalized– and doing so would build a larger pipeline of women leaders.
Improving gender parity in leadership positions has long been a stated goal for many firms. Still, these public-facing statements did not always reflect the reality of day-to-day firm life. With the pandemic hitting the reset button, firms have an opportunity to rethink lateral hiring policies that historically disadvantage women and embrace greater flexibility.