With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the legal field is in want of diversity. And though social distancing has exacerbated diversity issues on many fronts—for instance, by adding to the burden of working mothers now bearing the brunt of child care and household chores—some changes the pandemic has forced upon law firms may well be diversity assets.
The pandemic has debunked unspoken but entrenched myths that continue to impede diversity efforts. Embracing some of the new truths can actually help the legal profession take its much-needed strides towards meaningful diversity and inclusion.
Debunked Myth 1: Face Time Ensures Workers Stay Productive
Before Covid-19, face time remained a rigorous requirement in many law firms. Because most senior partners and law firm managers climbed the ranks in a time when few people telecommuted, many still operated on the assumption that working remotely means not working at all. The lockdown has shattered that belief, allowing workers to demonstrate that they can be just as productive at home, if not more so.
This forced experiment has significant benefits for women and diverse attorneys. If a mother can balance her work with child care while in lockdown—which requires her to also attend to her children’s virtual education—she can certainly manage to work remotely once or twice a week, outside the exigencies of a pandemic.
Further, the pandemic has forced remote working for men and women alike. This offers particular diversity advantages: heteronormative defaults and traditional gender norms are still well-engrained in law firms and workplaces across our country. Allowing both men and women to meet family demands offers support to single parents as well as same-sex and opposite-sex partnerships.
Even within the traditional opposite-sex couple, allowing the male partner the flexibility of remote work permits him to take on more household and parenting tasks. That in turn gives his female partner—who may well be a lawyer, since female attorneys are more likely to marry other attorneys—more bandwidth to focus on her work.
Parity in maternity and paternity leaves supports women and men as well as same-sex and opposite-sex households. The same principle holds true for flexibility with teleworking.
Debunked Myth 2: Flexible Hours Impede Productivity
Going hand in hand with the myth of the face time requirement is the idea that optimal productivity requires everyone to be working at the same time. While it can certainly be helpful to have days or times when teams overlap, the pandemic has proven what case teams staffed across time zones have long known: that it can be efficient and beneficial to have team members working staggered shifts.
More than supporting attorneys with family demands, removing artificially imposed working hours also permits all attorneys to work when they are at their most efficient, thereby driving up productivity and eliminating unnecessary costs for firms and clients. In fact, with teams working across a longer window of time, there is more likely to be coverage for last-minute case emergencies and time-sensitive client questions.
Flexibility with hours emphasizes using actual work product as a performance metric. This focus will benefit working parents and attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds who are less likely to have the comfort or time to schmooze with the boss, and who are more likely instead to devote their time to producing quality work.
Debunked Myth 3: Effective Lawyering Can Only Be Done in Person
The coronavirus has forced attorneys to handle via teleconference lawyering tasks like court appearances and depositions, which have traditionally taken place in person. The lockdown has put a spotlight on the little-appreciated fact that technological advances have allowed these tasks to be tackled ably and with great savings to clients.
Although virtual depositions, for instance, are unlikely to become standard practice after the pandemic, our experiences with these technological workarounds open doors for diverse attorneys for whom traveling poses extraordinary challenges—for instance, disabled attorneys, women attorneys late in their pregnancies, and attorneys with significant family and elder care demands.
Even remote meetings have proven to eliminate inefficiencies, demonstrating that there is less need for people to travel and meet in person than we previously thought. Although video meetings can certainly exacerbate gender dynamics—on Zoom, men’s voices are even more likely to dominate and subsume women’s—conference calls can be led effectively, for instance, by meeting in smaller groups and allowing turns for each participant to speak.
Deployed well, remote meetings can confer an additional avenue to integrating and supporting attorneys whose disabilities and home demands limit their ability to travel.
Law firms, like the rest of the world, are currently preoccupied with the large problems presented by public health and the struggling economy. But as the dust starts to settle and we turn our attention toward reopening offices, the coronavirus leaves us much to consider.
Studies have shown time and again that diverse companies are more profitable and resilient. In the current climate, it is crucial to assess our office norms with an eye towards adopting more inclusive approaches. Doing so may be the key to attracting, retaining, and supporting diverse talent—and all talent, for that matter—that can empower law firms to thrive and flourish, no matter the economy.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Qian Julie Wang is an associate in the New York office of Robins Kaplan LLP. She focuses her practice on commercial and appellate litigation.