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Will the pandemic prompt an 'exodus' of women lawyers?

3 minute read

REUTERS/Yara Nardi

  • Eight current and former women ABA presidents warn that law firms and legal employers must step up to better support women lawyers during the pandemic
  • Flexible work policies will only help if more male lawyers use them, they said during a panel session on women in the profession
  • Law firms overestimate effectiveness of initiatives geared toward helping women, past ABA president says

(Reuters) - Law firms and other legal employers will have to pay close attention to what women lawyers want and need in order to ward off a wave of departures sparked by the added responsibilities women have shouldered during the pandemic.

That was the message from eight current and former women presidents of the American Bar Association who convened Thursday for a discussion about the uneven progress that women have made in the profession over the past three decades. Their discussion, part of the ABA’s annual meeting, ranged from the poor representation of women in arbitration practices to the added burdens that minority women face.

But the session closed out with a dire warning to legal employers that they risk losing a sizable cohort of talented women lawyers if they can’t find more meaningful ways to better support them and recognize that the added caregiving responsibilities posed by the pandemic have disproportionately fallen on women.

“Whether we will see an exodus of women from the profession depends on each of us—not only the eight of us here but everyone gathered for this assembly, the leaders of law firms and in-house law departments, government agencies and other places of legal employment,” said Judy Perry Martinez, of counsel at New Orleans-based Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn and the ABA’s immediate past president. “Because it’s right now and right here that we have to take the action necessary in order to make sure that these valued individuals within our profession know that we are listening to them and what they need to be at their best.”

It’s unfair of law firms to expect lawyers to step up to meet the needs of clients whenever they arise without also considering the needs and of priorities of those lawyers as well, Martinez noted.

Some firms have rolled out flexible work policies in response to COVID-19. For example, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe announced in November that it will allow associates caring for children and elderly parents to temporarily work a reduced schedule with full pay during the pandemic.

But women lawyers will remain reluctant to take advantage of flex-time policies and other programs that reduce their time requirements until more men get on board, warned Hilarie Bass, the former co-president of Greenberg Traurig, who led the ABA in 2017.

Many women worry that reducing hours signals lack of commitment and will cost them opportunities for advancement, said Bass, who initiated a 2019 research project on why women leave large firms. In that study, 67% of respondents said they immediately perceived that their firms viewed them as less committed to their careers upon having children—a bias few men face.

That study also found a significant gap in how effective managing partners and senior partners rated their firms' efforts to promote and retain senior women attorneys, compared to the views of experienced women attorneys themselves.

“For the most part, law firms underestimate the impediments women face to be successful in law practice,” Bass said. “And they overestimate the initiatives they’ve created to try to assist. They think they are doing a lot of things that should make life better for women lawyers, but in fact they underestimate the ongoing challenges.”

Read more:

Orrick says lawyers with kids or elderly parents can cut back on hours in pandemic

'It's exhausting': Why women want out of the legal profession

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