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The Pandemic Changed How Lawyers Work, Women Partners Say

Sept. 20, 2021, 8:01 AM

How has the pandemic changed the way lawyers—and women in particular—work and what law firms need to do to attract and maintain talent?

Lauren Drake of recruiting firm Macrae moderated a roundtable discussion with three female partners to explore what they learned while working from home during the pandemic and the long-lasting benefits of more flexible workplaces, which they say can turn good firms into great ones.

She speaks with Stephanie Breslow of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, Shanell Cramer of Alston & Bird, and Renata Hesse of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. All three are members of the Female Law Firm Leaders Roundtable in New York or the Women Practice Group Leaders’ Roundtable in Washington, D.C., which Drake recently launched and leads.

Drake: What advantages or disadvantages did you face balancing work, family, and professional obligations while working from home?

Breslow: The pandemic was challenging for parents of children living at home, and the related burdens fell disproportionately on women. The challenges were particularly acute for parents of children too young to realistically manage remote schooling.

But remote working gave parents the opportunity to spend more time with their children during the day, and eliminated the stresses of trying to balance face time at work with the need to handle parenting responsibilities during traditional work hours.

Cramer: Women were expected to fulfill multiple roles. We not only had to perform at our jobs, we also had to teach and care for our children. Many female colleagues were put in charge of keeping teams connected in a virtual environment: checking in on associates and staff, coming up with virtual team- building ideas and finding ways to stay connected with clients.

Hesse: The major upside for women attorneys who are parents was the ability to spend more time with their children, though this wasn’t always easy. People were much more forgiving of children (and pets!) in the workplace.

Men were also balancing their work and personal lives—something women still deal with more than men—making work-life balance a bit more mainstream. The difficulties associated with the blurring of personal and work became worse the longer the pandemic lasted, and women generally shouldered those difficulties more.

Drake: As law firms reopen their offices, what lasting lessons can they and women attorneys take away from the pandemic? What benefits associated with working from home do you predict will endure?

Breslow: I’m hopeful that the pandemic taught firms that many aspects of work can be successfully handled remotely. Flexibility can be a huge benefit to parents and make large law firm practice more appealing to anyone who values more control over their time. This should help erode the assumption that a person not glued to their desk isn’t serious about their work.

On the other hand, I don’t think full-time remote work is realistic; the long-term adverse effects on training, mentoring, and a sense of shared culture would be too significant. We need to avoid a new work model in which all waking hours are now fair game; otherwise, flexibility will degenerate into burnout.

Cramer: We learned that many aspects of our jobs can be done remotely with wild efficiency. Cutting down on commuting gave us more time to get tasks done and added to our quality of life. On the other hand, it’s become increasingly difficult to truly log off with your home office open 24-7. I hope the biggest lesson is that we can be remote and that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Hesse: You can be productive and do good work without sitting in the office. We need to keep in mind that some flexibility in this area is not only reasonable, but beneficial. Work-from-home doesn’t work for everybody. Maintaining the connective tissue that develops from being together in an office is really important, particularly for lawyers just starting out in their careers.

Drake: What can women attorneys in leadership roles do to ensure that their peers understand the positives of workplace flexibilities for all attorneys?

Breslow: Today’s bidding wars for qualified associates should tell firms that flexibility brings a recruiting and retention advantage. Parents of young children face a period of intense demands on their time that often coincides with years spent as midlevel and senior associates. This drives many out of big law, which is an unnecessary talent drain, and fuels a disproportionate loss of talented female attorneys.

Firm leadership should understand the advantages of a business model that requires less personal sacrifice.

Cramer: I think with all decisions to change course, you need to substantiate your argument with hard facts, numbers, and success stories. Demonstrating how productive your team has been is key. Have billable hours increased? How is morale? It’s important to understand that most employees want flexibility.

Many firms are now providing a myriad of flexible working arrangements. If you do not move with the market, you’ll be left behind and lose talent.

Hesse: We need to lead by example, in terms of both showing that it is OK to be more flexible about where people are working and modeling the importance of in-person collaboration and contact (when it is safe, of course).

And I think we need to make sure that women and men have the opportunity to learn and flourish while they navigate how to work from home and work in the office—and do so effectively.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Lauren Drake is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of transatlantic legal recruiting firm Macrae. She focuses on representing and placing partners, groups, and senior government talent into top-tier global law firms.

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