Female Attys Tackle Workday Pandemic Pressure

Female attorneys participating in a New Jersey State Bar Association convention panel said on Thursday that while the COVID-19 pandemic hasn't reverted social progress in the traditionally male-dominated profession back to 1950s-level oppression, the public health crisis has exacerbated the struggle of balancing law careers and home life.

A judge, a prosecutor, private practice firm leaders and others conversed about working in the coronavirus era during the panel discussion, "Has Coronavirus Taken Women Back to the 1950s? The Benefits of Identifying, Supporting and Retaining Female Talent in the Wake of COVID-19." The virtual event took place during the second day of the bar association's annual convention, which is being held remotely due to the pandemic.

The conversation touched on statistics showing that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women in terms of forcing them to trade work for childcare duties, as well as broader issues in place before the public health crisis, such as gender pay disparity and compensation gaps between white women and women of color.

"Going back to the 1950s is not an option," panelist Najma Q. Rana, an assistant prosecutor for Hudson County, said about what she's learned from working as a female attorney during the pandemic.

The biggest challenge the women revealed was managing the workday from home, often alongside kids who are sharing the same space while attending school remotely.

"Mom guilt" was a pre-pandemic theme for Hudson County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Espinales-Maloney, the mother of a 3-year-old and an 11-year-old, but the coronavirus definitely "exaggerated" it.

"You feel like you're failing at everything you do," said the jurist, who sustains herself by working at odd hours and leaning on family members for help.

Likewise, the pandemic has thrust Diane L. Cardoso, a partner at Javerbaum Wurgaft Hicks Kahn Wikstrom & Sinins, into the revolving roles of lawyer, taxi driver, cleaning lady and chef.

"When you threw in remote learning and all the other tasks, it taught me I had a posh life before COVID," said Cardoso, manager of her firm's Jersey City office.

The panel's mood was optimistic for the most part, with New Jersey Supreme Court Clerk Heather Joy Baker hailing the judiciary for its flexibility in terms of responding to workers' needs during the pandemic, including by holding multiple "listening sessions."

The discussion took on a cautionary tone at times, as panelists acknowledged that female advancement in law could get relegated to the back burner along with all the other initiatives placed on hold due to the public health crisis.

"Just like it took decades to achieve, it could take years to regain," warned panel moderator Paulette Brown, a Locke Lord LLP senior partner who leads diversity and inclusion efforts at her firm.

None of the panelists recounted personally experiencing work discrimination during the pandemic, but one recalled a virtual meeting in which an old mindset surfaced.

Lisa A. Gorab, president of Wilentz Goldman & Spitzer PA, said that some participants on a Zoom conference she attended during the pandemic demonstrated that mindset when the child of one attendee came onscreen.

The mom remained focused, according to Gorab, but other participants were "disturbed."

"I saw it in their eyes, in their motions," Gorab said.

The panelists agreed that the current landscape in law is far cry from a time when, as Judge Espinales-Maloney put it, the typical jurist was a white man, but that vestiges of sexism linger.

Certain men in the industry still "don't get it," according to the lone man on the panel, Ralph J. Lamparello of Chasan Lamparello Mallon & Cappuzzo PC. He said men need to help further equality in the legal profession, and suggested that the bar association launch a hotline for women to voice concerns about gender discrimination. He also thinks education is key.

"Just a conference like this, I think, has to be mandatory," Lamparello said.

Checking in with female colleagues during the pandemic is another way the panelists are keeping progress alive.

Carolyn F. O'Connor, the regional managing partner of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP's New Jersey office, began holding regular Zoom lunches with her team. It has allowed her to identify and connect with those who appeared to be struggling, she said.

Her takeaway was that you "cannot put one definition on what the pandemic has meant to women attorneys." Her new passion is ensuring the post-pandemic culture in her office continues to support women, she said.

"Micro-mentoring," in which senior female attorneys support female lawyers early in their careers, is a concept Gorab endorsed.

It can be as casual as reaching out to someone who "reminds you of yourself," according to Gorab.

"You don't have to have a fancy program name," she said.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.



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