Still Surprised About Law’s Mass Exodus of Women? Please Come Out From Under That Rock

June 1, 2021

We’ve noticed something funny about the legal media’s coverage of law firm return-to-office plans: Very few of the articles mention school reopening or child care. (This one does, but not until paragraph 13.)

The coverage follows the same arc again and again: Some people want to return to the office and some don’t — check. That divide seems to fall along generational lines — check. But why that is, what could possibly cause mid-career women associates and young partners to resist returning to the office, continues to be shrouded in mystery.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, here are some facts:

  1. The pandemic has highlighted the “grotesque inequality” that exists within families headed by heterosexual couples around who performs “invisible labor.” In plain English, that means that women still do the lion’s share of the housework, child care and elder care in this country.
  2. During the pandemic, most schools closed. You may have heard about this. While some students have returned to some in-person instruction, many summer camps will not run this year and plans for the fall are still very much up in the air. In addition, children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine. All of this means that a lot of kids will still be home for some time — the pandemic may be over for you, but it’s not over for parents of young kids — and, statistically speaking, their mother will be caring for them.
  3. Each individual woman has only one body that cannot be in two places at once.

We’ve known about these three facts for a long time, but you wouldn’t know it from reading about law firms rolling out their return-to-work plans for the summer and beyond. Among our clients, we have been impressed with the humility and caution they’ve used in communications around returning to the office. Obviously, many firm leaders are deftly navigating the enormous tension between the need to operate under one roof and the need to accommodate a variety of circumstances. But other firm leaders have taken a much harder line, demanding that workers come back to full-time, in-office work by mid-summer.

And they are surprised to be getting pushback!

Even Vivia Chen, whose entire body of work is dedicated to calling out regressive policies in the legal industry, was taken aback by the dismal statistics on women’s experiences reported in the latest survey of 4,200 ABA members (54% men and 43% women) from September 30 to October 11, 2020, Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward:

-More than a third (35%) of women are thinking of going part-time, an uptick from previous years.

-53% of women with children age five or younger and 41% with children age six to 13 — the next wave of law firm partners — are thinking about going part-time.

While things may have improved for some women since the fall, many others continue to consider chucking their career to save their sanity. If Vivia is surprised by these stats, we tremble to contemplate the reaction of the average managing partner. Is it a simple blind spot because women are working so hard to cover up their struggles from the men in charge (out of a justifiable fear of being penalized for their divided loyalties)? Do the men in charge assume that, as in the past, these women will find a way to “figure it out” and multitask their way into getting everything done? How, exactly, would that happen? Do leaders really not connect the dots to see that the unsustainable work-life circumstances are already leading to a mass exodus of women lawyers, which will tank firm diversity numbers, which, in turn, will weaken overall firm performance for clients?

Do these managing partners just not care how many women they retain? Because here’s one last fact: Clients definitely care, and they are paying attention to trends in gender diversity numbers at their outside firms.

We’ve said it so many times, and here we are saying it again: If firms don’t want to lose a sizable portion of their best and brightest talent, if they want a partnership class that is not all white men, and if they want to win the business of just about any large company in the country, they must implement policies that support women’s career advancement. That means many things, but at the moment flex time and non-punitive part-time tracks are absolutely crucial.

Managing partners seem to feel that they cut people a break all last year and now those folks should be rushing back and expressing their undying gratitude. But the circumstances that made life impossible then are still in place for a lot of people. Making flexible work permanent isn’t doing a favor for lawyers on the “mommy track.” It is simply how you prevent your firm from becoming obsolete. 

Curious to see how your firm’s plan measures up to its peers’? Check out Modern Lawyer’s Office Reopening and Work Flexibility Tracker