Are we on the verge of a female “exodus” from Big Law?
Will the pandemic cause a major female brain drain? Or is it just a lot of hooey?
For months, I was in denial. It’s because I’ve heard that the pandemic hasn’t been that bad for women at all.
“Zoom has been an equalizer,” says Suong Nguyen, partner at Quinn Emanuel in Silicon Valley, of his participation in remote hearings and mediations. “Now everyone has a place ‘at the table’ because we all have the same space on Zoom.” Also, adds Nguyen, “Zoom has been great for business development and I can have lunch with my daughter!” Another plus, the lawyers say, is that male-to-man bonding events like golf outings, cigar bar junkets and football games have been sidelined during the pandemic. “Now men are stuck like me at work,” says a lawyer at a bank.
Sadly, these women might not be representative of the entire female experience during Covid-19. According to a new study from the American Bar Association (“Practice law in the pandemic and move forward”), who interviewed 4,200 ABA members (54% men and 43% women) from September 30 to October 11, 2020, the pandemic has not been friends with lawyers. Although Big Law’s attorneys generally worked like dogs during Covid and suffered stress as a result, the women had a much worse time. The ABA study reveals that women go crazy trying to juggle family and work, so much so that many consider cutting their careers or giving up altogether.
“It’s clear that the ‘divestiture’ is happening in the legal industry,” says Katherine Helm, a New York-based Dechert partner who has three school-aged children. “I have seen both women associates and partners quitting or downgrading their careers altogether over the past year,” highlighting the difficulties women have with young children. She calls the so-called “benefits” of the pandemic a “toxic positivity,” which “is not particularly helpful in boosting morale or encouraging women to stay in the practice of law in these difficult times.” The reality, she adds, is that “gender effects in the legal profession appear to be comparable to those in other working class industries.”
Unfortunately, she may be right. The ABA study amplifies the worrying findings inMcKinsey / LeanIn 2020 Report on Women at Work, who reports that 25% of women in the workforce “are considering what many would have considered unthinkable [before the onset of the pandemic]: downgrade their career or quit the job market altogether. And for women with children, that number is one in three. Worse yet, the McKinsey / LeanIn report concludes that women could be delayed by half a decade, resulting in “far fewer women in leadership and far fewer women on their way to future leaders.” All the progress we have seen over the past six years could be erased. “
This terrible warning may already be playing out in Big Law. The ABA report reveals that more than a third (35%) of women plan to work part-time, an increase from previous years. And the group most affected are the women who represent the next wave of law firm partners: those with young children. The report finds that 53% of women with children aged five or under and 41% of women with children aged six to 13 plan to work part time. More alarmingly, 37% of women are considering quitting altogether because of the pandemic.
“It’s usually women who are five to 15 years out of law school who are extremely profitable for law firms,” says Stephanie Scharf, co-author of the ABA report, of who are the most profitable. likely to reduce their careers. Partner at Scharf Banks Marmor and director of consultancy firm The Red Bee Group, Scharf adds: “The 24/7 culture, the pressure continues during Covid in which companies act as if business is business as usual, brings some with babies to think about. , I don’t want to stay here.
Surprisingly (or not), the ABA report finds that lawyers of color, who made up 15% of respondents, tend to experience higher stress levels than white lawyers, but are less likely to downsize or to quit their job. One reason, the report assumes, is that lawyers of color often come from less privileged backgrounds and have to work full time. Yet women rank high overall for all stress indicators.
“There’s definitely a disproportionate impact on women,” says co-author Roberta Liebenberg, partner at Fine, Kaplan & Black and co-director of Red Bee. Not only do women still do the heavy lifting in childcare and household chores, she explains, “but they are worried about staying on the partnership path even though they face many more distractions at home. Work at home. [than their spouses]. The result: “We believe that there is a potential for an exodus of diverse talent from law firms,” Liebenberg summarizes.
An exodus? I imagine a phalanx of women pushing expensive strollers out the door. Considering the time it took for women to pass the 20% equity partnership mark in Big Law (women represent 21% of equity and 31% of unfair partners according to the National Association’s 2020 survey. of Women Lawyers), can we really afford to lose 25-35% of lawyers in their prime? (Keep in mind that women have made up about 50% of top law school students for three decades.) Before you know it, women will only make up 15-16% of equity partners, just like in the bad old days.
While the data does not relate to the exact number of women who have cut their careers because of the pandemic, we are preparing. So what can be done? Or is it already too late to keep women in their careers?
Not at all, insist Liebenberg and Scharf. To retain female lawyers, “firms need to set up variable-time and part-time work that has a lane,” says Liebenberg. “Women want to see companies invest in it.”
What women don’t need are dead-end “mom leads”, warns Scharf. In addition, firms must be more receptive to lawyers who interrupt, she adds. “In most companies, if you stop working for one, two or three years, it’s like you’re dead. But careers are much longer – at least 30 years – and companies need to understand that careers have a long journey. “
Scharf and Liebenberg propose a major overhaul. “This is a great time to think about compensation and performance evaluation,” says Liebenberg. “Women are really stressed that their performance during the pandemic will define them. Companies need to rethink compensation, how origination works and encourage teamwork. Silencing lawyers is not a good thing. “
“Now is a good time for companies to think about what kind of culture they want and what it means to have diversity,” Scharf sums up. “This is also the right time to rethink practices and policies.”
So, for women to stay, companies need to create flexible and part-time options that aren’t mom leads, allow dropout lawyers to return to the fold, revamp the pay system, and make the process d fairer assessment. And, oh, let’s fix culture too because culture is still fundamental.
My God, that’s quite a list. Not to be a killjoy, but is Big Law willing to do all of that to keep women in the game?
Well, said Scharf, “you don’t have to do it all at once.”