In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I was working on an important case that was going to trial. It was the longest trial that was listed for a remote hearing in 2020. I worked a staggering number of billable hours.
The surprising thing, however, was not that I worked those hours, but the number of non-billable hours that I racked up concurrently. I spent a lot of extra time on office management issues, supporting colleagues, and on inclusion work in the wake of the racial justice protests. This was in addition to recognized non-billable client and firm management time.
Being honest, it was a typical pattern for me, and I believe, for many other women in law firms. I had always tended to volunteer to do what I termed “office housework” (although I agree that using this term minimizes the value of this work). I was the one coordinating the pro bono, organizing the kids’ Christmas party, (coincidentally I took over this task from a woman and handed it to another woman), and even organizing an office fitness space.
Each Friday, I post perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion under the hashtag (#FrIDays) and one of my posts, a few weeks ago, about women being unrewarded in the legal profession for doing this type of work, gained some momentum.
I wrote about it because it is a key issue that is not spoken about sufficiently, particularly on the heels of the gender pay gap reports being published across the legal industry. Some London firms record gender pay gaps of up to 65%, so addressing the work that firms choose to reward and how they reward it is important.
According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report 2020, during the pandemic and before, women took on lots of extra hours to do extra unpaid work. For example, women corporate leaders were twice as likely to be asked to champion DEI outside their normal job responsibilities.
Employers say that they hugely value their employees’ contributions to office organization, mentoring, diversity and inclusion, but less than a quarter fully recognize it. This is particularly acute in the legal industry which tends to lag behind industry in terms of parity and pay.
In the interest of transparency, my own law firm does recognize this work in that a set number of hours count towards billable targets. But based on my informal straw poll of peer law firms, work done on management of human capital for the firm is generally non-chargeable.
It goes without saying that this work benefits organizations tremendously. It is therefore regrettable that it goes unrecognized: This work does not often lead to the big bonuses, or to large salary increases, and the studies show that when performed by women, this work does not necessarily assist career advancement. These tasks also deprive women of time that they could dedicate to billable work and rainmaking, work that is traditionally revered and rewarded.
The key question is: What can organizations do about it?
Aligning Firm Values and Policy
The first step is recognizing that this is work—and real work at that. There is need for urgent alignment between firm messaging and firm policy.
Second, there needs to be recognition that this valuable work is quantifiable and measurable. For example, work done on allyship, executing initiatives, and DEI can be assessed by key performance indicators, including via feedback and surveys.
Is the firm ‘paid’ by its increased profile and positioning in the market? Do clients value and choose the firm based on these initiatives? Crucially, do the employees value and choose the firm because of the efforts put into unseen work such as unpaid mentoring and employee networks?
If so, third, there must be agreement that those who meet these metrics should be compensated. Most of us who do this work do not do it to be compensated. We do it because we want to, and because it makes for a nicer working environment. However, without the recognition that this work is compensable, we risk diminishing and minimizing its perception and impact.
Finally, firms can introduce a unit-based objective system to compensate those who do work in furtherance of the organization’s values. These units should be tied tangible benefits, to promotions, raises, and bonuses.
Equity Is Needed
There is, however, a sequitur. Even with appropriate recognition, assuming too much of this work does not assist those who do it.
It is particularly ironic that we say to women that to get on with their careers they must ensure a fair division of labor at home, but we do not police it in quite the same way at work.
We must therefore ensure that employees are appropriately sensitized to this issue and that policies are put in place to ensure that this type of work is divided equitably across gender. Men must be asked specifically to practice allyship, to tend to the emotional needs of their team, to speak up on DEI issues, and to organize company events.
But it does not stop there. The research shows that men who do this work are more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises, and bonuses and there is no equivalent payoff for women.
Therefore, my third suggestion is important. There must be a process of objective benchmarking to ensure that men are rewarded in exactly the same way as women for doing the same tasks.
Repurposing a Caribbean proverb, we must make sure that six and half of a dozen are exactly the same.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Akima Paul Lambert is a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells in London, focusing on complex commercial litigation, investigations, and arbitration. She has been an advocate of DEI initiatives for 15 years, serving on the Black Solicitors Network City Group and co-founding a mentoring program for Black and minority lawyers in London.