COVID Takes A Toll On Women's Legal Careers

Gretchen Herault and her son George, 10, at home. Herault bought George a stockpile of craft supplies when his school closed, thinking they would last weeks. He went through them in half an hour. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Herault)

For the first few months of the pandemic, Teresa balanced being a full-time, partner-track immigration attorney at a large law firm with serving as an at-home teacher for her young child with special needs.

Time was precious, and she and her husband divided the weekend into quarters so they could each get a break to themselves. During her breaks, Teresa worked.

"You just keep trying to juggle those balls every day, and keep watching them fall," she says. "It's living with that constant feeling of failure."

She craved relaxation so much that one summer night, she couldn't bear to go to bed. The sooner she did, the sooner it would be morning.

"I knew I was going to have to get up and work on a Sunday, and I just couldn't. I just couldn't do it," she says. "So I decided to drink a bunch of rum and binge-watch 'Twilight' instead."

At 4 a.m., her husband found her drunkenly crying in the bathroom. She remembers him saying, "That's it. This is the last straw."

She went part time — working 40 hours a week instead of 70 — and took a sizable pay cut.

Teresa is one of five current or former BigLaw attorneys interviewed by Law360 Pulse — all on the condition of anonymity — who cut their hours, took a leave of absence, or quit when the pandemic toppled the precarious balance of work and life. Freelance and in-house attorneys, too, struggled to juggle obligations.

As early as April 2020, economists coined the term "she-cession" to describe the pandemic-fueled economic downturn's effect on the unemployment rate among women. While past recessions took a larger toll on men, the global job loss rate for women last year was 1.8 times higher than it was for men, according to a "Women in the Workplace" study from McKinsey & Co.

Economists pointed to two reasons for the shift. Women tend to work in sectors hit hard by the pandemic, like education and the service industry. And, with schools shifting online and children stuck at home, working mothers grappled with tough decisions.

A study of law firm departures by the legal industry data company Firm Prospects found the number of attorneys who left BigLaw went down in 2020, and the percentage of departing attorneys who were women was comparable to past years.

But that might not be the end of the story, according to Bobbi Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf, principals at The Red Bee Group, a consulting firm for corporations and law firms. They're at work on a study about the pandemic's impact on women's legal careers and say an exodus could be on the horizon.

"People may not have left physically, but they are leaving mentally," Liebenberg says. "Women are looking for legal employers that have more predictability for schedules and more flexibility. I think because of the pandemic, people are reevaluating what they want out of work."

The McKinsey study of women in corporate jobs found that 1 in 4 were considering "downshifting" their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19. There was a significant gender divide among parents.

The McKinsey report attributed this to unpaid domestic labor. Mothers are at least three times more likely than fathers to shoulder most housework and child care duties.

That's not surprising to Lindsay Kennedy, a freelance attorney and vice president of the nonprofit MothersEsquire, a support group and advocacy organization for mothers in the legal industry.

"We always knew women carry more housework and the mental load for raising children. They always have," she says. "The pandemic has brought that out even more."

"An Abundance of Caution"

In February 2020, Emily's family doctor warned her that quarantine was coming.

One of Emily's children had a kidney transplant as a baby and is immunocompromised. During the second week of March, she pulled her kids from school, didn't let them socialize, and started working from home.

"At the time, it was out of an abundance of caution," she says. "And then, four days later, the whole world shut down."

Tina, a transactional attorney in a BigLaw office in the Southwest, decided to quarantine early as well. Her husband has a chronic health condition, and that, she says, "was the main driver" of their pandemic decisions, like pulling their two young children from day care.

Tina hadn't gone back to full-time work since her kids were born, but even with reduced hours, it was difficult to balance her job and her husband's with caring full time for two kids.

In June, they hired a nanny. Three weeks into the job, she was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The nanny found out before potentially endangering the family and ultimately tested negative. But the experience shook Tina.

"Numbers had been increasing in our area with COVID cases, and we felt it was safest to just hunker down," she said. "And we felt we couldn't sustain our jobs at the same level if it was just going to be us."

She reduced her hours at work a few months into the pandemic, and then cut them further still, after finding that even a 50% workload was unsustainable.

One year into the pandemic, her husband got vaccinated, and they sent the kids back to day care. She can work during the daytime again, which she says is "amazing."

But she worries about 2020's long-term effect on her career, which may have already taken a hit when she reduced her hours after having kids.

"It might just mean it's going to take me longer to get where I want to go," she says. "I felt that I was on a long path to partner anyways."

Such concerns were common among women attorneys even before the pandemic.

A 2019 American Bar Association study, also written by Liebenberg and Scharf, found that 63% of women reported they were perceived as less committed to their careers, compared with 2% of men. Liebenberg attributes that to implicit biases around motherhood.

The pandemic is exacerbating the problem, she says.

"Levels of stress and anxiety and burnout are up," Liebenberg says. "They're particularly up for women associates, who are really worried about, 'If I have to meet these billable hour requirements, how is my performance evaluation going to take that into consideration? Will my career be defined by my performance during the pandemic?'"

Juggling Kids and Work

As an associate at a BigLaw firm, Marilyn once had a carefully calibrated schedule.

She would wake up when her baby did, usually around 6:30 a.m., and her nanny would arrive around 7:15 a.m. Marilyn would work from home for two or three hours then drive to the office. She would head home at 4 p.m. for family dinner, bathtime and bedtime. She'd do more work from 7 to 10 p.m.

Then the pandemic hit. She no longer had a commute, but she also didn't have an office door.

"Even if we had a nanny still coming during the pandemic, it would have still been really hard," she says. "My kid can still see me from where the nanny is trying to keep him occupied."

She began relying on her parents for child care. She could have set a schedule, but she wanted to relieve them whenever she could. That meant she and her husband scrambled to plan each day.

"The night before, we would talk about, 'What do you have in the morning?'" she says. "We'd tell my parents, 'We'll bring him over right before whoever's first call.'"

Her manager offered to switch Marilyn to part-time work, to 60% or 80%, but she worried a "reduced" schedule would mean "the same amount of stress and less money."

She ended up quitting and is now looking at in-house jobs.

Lindsay Kennedy and her daughters work from their shared office-classroom. (Photo by Karrin Britten)

Kennedy says MothersEsquire members frequently discuss how becoming amateur schoolteachers to their children makes time management impossible. She's experienced this with her kindergartner, whose morning virtual school sessions are pre-recorded videos, not live instruction.

"She literally doesn't even know how to click a video on. She's never used a computer before. So I would have to start the video, and then I would have four minutes, and I could go do something," she says. "This next video would be 12 minutes, and it would be like, 'Sweet! I can take a shower!'"

Even with older kids, the pandemic seems to bend time, according to Gretchen Herault, who at the start of 2020 was an in-house chief privacy officer at Haven, a health care services provider.

She remembers buying her 10-year-old son "craft supplies of all varieties" when his school closed. She had thought they would amuse him for weeks. He went through them in half an hour.

"I realized very quickly that this was going to be a very long haul," she says.

Kim, a mid-level associate at a BigLaw firm, thought she'd figured it out. She worked in the morning while her husband watched their toddler, and they'd switch in the afternoon. But during her working hours, there would be interruptions.

"The kid would barge in crying. My husband didn't believe in locking the door," she says. "We were going through the process of potty training, and he'd come in and say, 'Oh, he pooped on the floor. I need to clean up the mess. Can you clean him?'"

Traditional gender roles pervade all families — mothers are 1.5 times more likely than fathers to spend at least three hours each day on housework, according to the McKinsey study.

But the biggest household toll falls on women of color. Compared with white mothers, Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely to be responsible for child care and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely, McKinsey reported.

Kim, who is active in the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and her local chapter, says she's heard this trend play out in members' homes, and that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

"A lot of us don't have an extensive family network to draw upon for resources. I've been talking to a lot of women Asian and Pacific American attorneys, and they're all struggling," Kim says.

Employers have a role to play in ameliorating gender and race disparities, Liebenberg says, adding that it's in firms' best interests. Clients demand diversity in their representation at the senior level. They want to see women and people of color as first-chairs at trial and lead attorneys in deal negotiations, she says.

"Firms really need to have this pipeline all the way through so they can meet these demands with respect to diversity," Liebenberg says. "They have to think intentionally about how their programs work. If you're offering part time or flex time, but no predictability about the schedule, I'm not sure people are going to want to take that."

When Kim decided to take a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act, she was on her own in navigating the process. And after she went on leave, none of the colleagues she'd worked with for five years checked in on her.

"People say it takes a community to raise a child, and it really does," she says. "My firm has not been my community."

The COVID Crunch

In the winter of 2019, Emily was thinking of quitting.

Every day on her commute, she'd drive across a state line. It served as a border between the work that interested her — small real estate deals in her home state — and the majority of her work at the firm — helping out on leasing and sales for other attorneys' large clients.

When the pandemic hit, she put her thoughts of quitting on hold, mostly because her work got more interesting. She became the firm's coronavirus law expert.

Emily's background in government work meant she was tasked with navigating the new world of shutdowns — determining whether clients were essential businesses, how they could legally remain operational, and what summer reopening plans might mean.

"There were tons of [stay-at-home] orders coming out in real time," she says. "I had a really interesting few months at work, and I thought, 'Well, maybe this is what I needed, and maybe this is going to help me stay."

But for some attorneys, the additional work was unwelcome.

Teresa, the immigration attorney, had only just started a reduced schedule in September when the State Department released a visa bulletin allowing a significant backlog of people who'd been in green card limbo to file applications. They thought they'd only have one month to do so.

"Everywhere across the nation, immigration attorneys were all having a heart attack and partners were thrilled, because the billing went through the roof," Teresa says.

Her managing partner told the attorneys who'd reduced their hours to prepare to work 80 to 90 hours per week. She pushed back and tried to find a compromise on her hours.

"My husband had made commitments he'd have to drop," she says. "It wasn't just that I was going to have to go back to working a million hours a week."

Teresa thought she had a good relationship with her boss, who had her own kids, and pushed attorneys, especially working mothers, to maintain a good work-life balance. Teresa considered her a mentor.

But that changed when Teresa tried to keep her reduced schedule.

Her boss dropped her from projects without warning. In meetings, she would thank other attorneys for "stepping up," then ask Teresa, "What are you going to do to help?"

"Our friendship and our mentorship really broke down," she says. "It was very painful."

Teresa eventually reached out to an old colleague within the firm, asking to work for him instead. He said yes, and it's going well, but she's disappointed she lost her mentor in that way.

Emily comforts her son during the middle of the workday.

Law firms were slow to shift their work expectations during the pandemic, especially in its early days, according to a study by The Red Bee Group. In March 2020, as coronavirus concerns shuttered offices, only 10% of legal employers reduced their billable hour requirements. That's been hard on mothers, Scharf says.

"The push-pull of working mothers in particular between work and home is not new, but COVID has definitely exacerbated the problem," she says. "It's also raised very serious questions for legal employers who for the most part have not been very flexible in their expectations of associates and partners during the pandemic."

Taking a Chance

Gretchen Herault toyed with the idea of starting her own business for years.

"I realized if I didn't do it soon, I might never do it," she says. "I think the pandemic probably caused a lot of people to rethink their values and what's important to them."

Now she bills herself as a "virtual privacy officer," helping companies meet regulatory requirements without having to invest resources in an internal privacy team. Starting that business during an economic downturn was stressful, especially because she's the sole breadwinner for her household.

"It can take a long time to start working with a company," she says. "Even if they're interested in working with you, it might take some time to get that up and running."

But she was able to get referrals and some initial business right away. And because she sets her own schedule, it's easier to work and ensure her son pays attention to his virtual classroom.

For Emily, the real estate lawyer, the initial pandemic-fueled work of interpreting stay-at-home orders gave her "a touchstone for what it felt like to be in the groove." When that ended, she fell back into a slump.

Meanwhile, her kids were struggling. They couldn't go to school or summer camp, or see their friends. Her son had daily meltdowns about virtual learning.

So she decided to quit. Her husband owns his own firm, and she took her clients with her and hung her shingle there.

"I just kind of reached that point where it's like: If we can still buy groceries and pay our mortgage, I just don't care," she says. "I don't care about my career anymore."

This moment is an opportunity, Scharf says. Firms that don't accommodate working mothers will lose out on a large and talented swath of law school graduates.

"Enlightened firms will see it's not possible to go on treating people like they don't have a life," she says.

Emily hopes the pandemic will usher in a cultural shift among women in the legal industry as well.

When she was still at her firm, Emily started being radically honest during Zoom calls. Someone would ask, "How are you?" and she would answer, "I'm really worried about my son."

Her colleagues, especially men, seemed taken aback, she says, but "they didn't reject it either." She told other women at the firm to also reveal the challenges they usually try to conceal.

"Women just couldn't hide it anymore," she says. "We were so frazzled, and things were so extreme, that it felt better to say how we really felt or be more honest about what's going on. Women tend to think 'Don't let 'em see us sweat.' But people had no choice but to see us sweat."

--Additional reporting by Annie Pancak. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify remarks from one of the attorneys who spoke with Law360 Pulse.

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