WOL Members Write Report on Effect of COVID-19 on the Legal Profession

by Roberta D. Liebenberg | Fine Kaplan & Black

On April 26, 2021, the American Bar Association released a groundbreaking report concerning the profound effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal profession and setting forth suggested best practices for legal employers and individual lawyers as we emerge from the pandemic and confront the many significant changes that have occurred in the practice of law over the past year.  The report, “Practicing Law in the Pandemic and Moving Forward,” was written by Roberta “Bobbi” Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf, who are principals of The Red Bee Group and former Chairs of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. The report is based on a survey of more than 4,200 ABA members, one of the largest ever by the Association, that was conducted in the Fall of 2020. Among the key findings:

For women lawyers, the disproportionate child care burden they already bore before the pandemic was "exacerbated" during the pandemic because of closed classrooms and the lack of normal childcare support.  Women were significantly more likely than men to shoulder greater child care responsibility, with the effects most pronounced on women attorneys with children age 5 or younger.

About half of respondents said that, compared to a year ago, their work was being disrupted more frequently due to family and household obligations. More than 60% of women lawyers and lawyers of color said they felt it was harder to keep their home and work lives separate.

Lawyers feel overwhelmed by the pressures of their work — especially women lawyers with children and lawyers of color — with many considering leaving the legal profession. "The pandemic has influenced women, even more than has been usual, to consider whether to step back from or leave the profession," the report states.

More than one-third of respondents (35%) are thinking significantly more often about working part-time. Women lawyers with children age 5 or younger (53%) and women lawyers with children age 6-13 (41%), were even more likely to be thinking about part-time work.

In addition to pandemic-related stresses, significant numbers of women and lawyers of color reported feeling stressed simply on account of their gender and race. 47% of lawyers of color said they felt stress on account of their race at least some of the time, and 52% of women lawyers said they felt stressed on account of their gender.  The report states that "Our data should raise alarm bells that there is a real potential for an exodus of diverse talent if implicit biases and differential treatment are not redressed.” 

The report states that “as we emerge from the pandemic, we have the unique opportunity to re-evaluate and reimagine all aspects of the practice of law.”  It includes a number of best practices, such as calling upon legal employers to commit to stronger diversity and inclusion strategies, as well as greater efforts to place women and lawyers of color in leadership positions. It also urges the wider use of part-time and flex-time work policies, the creation of pathways to success for those availing themselves of such policies, and the establishment of  "clear boundaries" between work and home life in order to promote attorneys’ well-being and avoid burnout. The report may be accessed at this link. https://www.americanbar.org/initiatives/practice-forward/

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