Losing Ground: Women Lawyers during COVID and Beyond

The challenges facing women in the legal profession are nothing new. Many law firms are committed to recruiting, retaining, and supporting women lawyers, and diversity initiatives have proliferated in recent years. Yet, the data suggest that there is still much room for improvement.

While male and female associates start off on roughly equal footing, women lawyers lose more and more ground over time – both in terms of pay equity and representation at the top.


Barriers to success

A 2019 ABA study on women in the profession, Walking Out the Door, found that men and women in law firms are equally satisfied with the intellectual challenge and substance of their work. But, women are much less likely to be satisfied with their compensation and the recognition they receive for their work.

Women lawyers experience both overt gender discrimination and implicit bias in their firms.  The majority of women lawyers in the ABA study said that, on account of their gender, they have experienced the following in their law firms:

  • Being mistaken for a lower-level employee (82%)
  • Demeaning comments, stories, jokes (75%)
  • Lack of access to business development opportunities (67%)
  • Being perceived as less committed to their careers (63%)
  • Being denied or overlooked for advancement or promotion (53%)


Rejecting the traditional law firm model

The ABA study found that experienced women attorneys most often leave big law firms in response to competing family demands (“caretaking commitments”). However, they are also leaving because of the stress and pressure of practicing law, the emphasis on business development, and the billable hour requirements.

Collectively, the data suggest that women face serious structural and cultural barriers to advancement in law firms. At the same time, many women are rejecting the traditional law firm model in favor of a more balanced and less stressful career path, one that makes more room for their personal and family commitments.

While many law firms are instituting programs and initiatives to address issues around work life balance (e.g., work from home polices, paid parental leave), just half of the women in the ABA study said that their firm has been successful at retaining women lawyers.


Impact of COVID

The COVID pandemic has only amplified these problems.

Prior to COVID, many women lawyers were already struggling to balance their work and family commitments. Over half of the women surveyed in the ABA study said that arranging childcare was their “full responsibility.” The percentage of men who said the same? One percent.

Overall, women – already doing 10.5 hours more household labor per week than men, on average – have now added oversight of children’s remote learning to their duties.

Often referred to as the “First Female Recession,” the pandemic has pushed women out of the workforce in record numbers, far outpacing men and risking decades of progress women have made.

While the practice of law is more amenable to remote work than many other professions, it is still a very demanding job. Women in big law, who often feel there is little margin for error if they want to advance, are finding conditions even more difficult during COVID. When the difficult becomes impossible, something has to give.


Supporting the women lawyers in your firm

COVID is a magnifying glass that reveals the underlying issues while exacerbating them. Yet, as the pandemic has intensified the burdens on women, we believe that it represents a unique opportunity to truly understand what women lawyers need to thrive in the profession.

At the same time, no two law firms are exactly alike, and the needs may differ from firm to firm. In order to know what specific programs or initiatives will be most impactful in your firm, it is important to understand the unique challenges and needs of the women in your firm.

Willow can help you understand those challenges and unmet needs and identify things you can do to support the women in your firm and prevent them from walking out the door. As a research company, we believe that the best way to learn what women need to thrive in the profession is to ask them directly. And, as a certified women-owned business with extensive experience working with and studying the legal profession, we believe we are uniquely suited to this endeavor. Please contact Sara or Van to discuss how we can help.

Sara Parikh

Vandana Razdan

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