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COVID-19—kill or cure for the careers of women lawyers?

Sally Dyson

18 Nov 2020

Many know that women represent at least half of law students and junior lawyers in most jurisdictions across the world, but that far fewer thrive and rise to reach the top of the profession. In a further blow, stark statistics have revealed that in the United Kingdom, women’s careers have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Writing in The Times, in ‘Let’s focus on real threats women face today’, Alice Thomson noted that “some economists have now dubbed the downturn the ‘shecession’ because it has hit women so hard” and notes that globally, “women’s job losses during this crisis are already 1.8 times greater than men’s”. Whilst we appear to be haemorrhaging female talent, could the pandemic teach us how to stem the flow and to develop new and sustainable approaches to the business of law that nurture, retain and promote women lawyers?

Fix the system not the person

Until now, well-intentioned attempts to support women’s careers have been too often focused on fixing women rather than fixing the system. In an enlightening report, ‘Women in Commercial Legal Practice’, the International Bar Association condemns “policies, ostensibly introduced to help women in the workplace” that were actually “designed to address the problem of women, not the workplace.” There is now an acknowledgement that this approach is back-to-front and ineffective.

Acritas, part of Thomson Reuters, have recently published the ’Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law 2020 Global Report’, which identifies the two key barriers to improving gender diversity at senior levels in law firms. The first relates to the domestic and caring burdens at home borne by women—and the second is bias, often unconscious.

Practitioner solutions

During the summer, under the auspices of the In-House Community’s Women in Law Dialogue Series, I chaired two panels of private practice and in-house lawyers and consultants from around the globe who shared their real-time experience of the impact of COVID-19 on women’s careers and what they and their firms were doing about it. There was lively discussion of both topics identified by Acritas and many recommendations given.

Sharing the mental load

Neelam Kaul, a coach and founder of Stressed in the City, introduced the concept of the “mental load” that women habitually carry such as remembering appointments, checking on elderly relatives and ensuring that children are not spending too much time in front of a screen. Kaul pointed out that in our professional lives, this would be called ‘project management’, but at home this is just part of a long list of things that women tend to worry about. Shruti Ajitsaria, Partner at Allen & Overy and head of their tech incubator, FUSE, as well as obviously seeing technology as an enabler, advised women with partners to think about how their relationships at home are set up, to have open conversations, to let go of being perfectionist and to delegate responsibilities to their partner and children when they are old enough.

Progress is often forged in the fire of disaster, with war-time discoveries later enhancing civilian life: from sanitary towels to teabags and from jet engines to computers. Christina Blacklaws, of Blacklaws Consulting, Immediate Past President of the Law Society of England & Wales, and member of the Thomson Reuters Transforming Women’s Leadership in Law advisory board, commented that, “anything which disrupts the status quo is a good opportunity for those disadvantaged by that status quo”. COVID-19 is no exception. The refrain that I am constantly hearing from law firm leaders is that they have implemented more changes at their firms in 2020 than in the past five years. Necessity is truly the mother of invention and usually conservative lawyers have been forced to do things differently by the situation. Georgia Dawson, Global Senior Partner elect of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer quoted an Internet meme, “who has done more for the implementation of your organisation’s digital strategy? The CEO / CIO or COVID-19?”.

Avoiding traps

Kate Broer, Partner at Dentons responsible for global client development and co-Chair of their national diversity and inclusion initiative asked if we are unwittingly replicating in law firms the dynamics that we see in our homes where women are often expected to take on the lions’ share of unpaid work. In the legal sphere, this might comprise tasks such as those designed to boost junior staff morale and welfare. Firms need to consciously avoid slipping into this default position and should fine tune their remuneration structures so that the work of good corporate citizens is rewarded. Trish Lee Refo, President of the American Bar Association and Partner at Snell & Wilmer counselled that we need to guard against the unintended consequences of policies that are meant to be gender neutral but turn out to disadvantage women. A topical example is where firms, in response to COVID-19, are offering staff and partners the chance to come back to the office if they want to. This laudable gesture can back-fire on women’s careers if they disproportionately elect to stay home in-order to fulfil their care-giving responsibilities. This led Barbara Becker, Partner and Chair of the firm-wide diversity committee at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher to conclude that as law firms still generally judge fee earners on their hours, “there’s nothing more important than making sure that those hours are fairly distributed”.

Embedding flexibility

The one initiative that received universal acclaim was the new willingness, as a result of COVID-19, for firms to offer staff more flexible and agile working conditions. Linda Myers, Partner and founder of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Kirkland & Ellis, noted that women have been trying to work from home for a long time. When everybody was forced to work from home, it became normalised and an ability to work from home, at least some of the time, is expected and hoped by many to become a permanent feature of modern working life. However, it is vital that professionals opting for more flexible working hours and locations should not be penalised as has previously been the case. A 2018 study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Mothers suffer big long-term pay penalty from part-time working’, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that “periods spent in part-time work lead to virtually no wage progression at all”. Additionally, Blacklaws cautioned that, “flexible working must not just be a mummy track”. It should be available “for any reason and none” and that “successful businesses will offer their staff genuine choice about where and how they work”, which will be enabling for everyone.

 

After earning her stripes as a solicitor at Slaughter and May, Sally Dyson moved in-house covering a wide variety of legal matters globally. Fascinated by the business of law, Sally qualified as an executive coach and founded Firm Sense where she provides client listening, coaching, and training services for lawyers. Sally has written extensively on diversity, culture, and people management in law firms  and on many other law firm leadership topics as co-author, with Paul Smith, of “The Real Deal: Law Firm Leadership that Works” published by Sweet & Maxwell and available here (paperback) and here (e-book).

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