chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
December 18, 2020 Feature

Work-Life Imbalance: Pandemic Disruption Places New Stresses on Women Lawyers

By Cynthia L. Cooper

During the evenings in September 2020, Kimberly Mauer, a partner in finance at Cincinnati-based Frost Brown Todd LLC, retreated to her basement. There, she painted dozens of curvy wooden hearts in the blue color of the firm’s logo. Mauer, chair of the Women’s Initiative Committee of the 525-lawyer firm, had already convened “Parents with Children” chats, after COVID-19 closures sent lawyers home to work remotely and children home to learn remotely. “It’s been a huge burden for them, emotionally and psychologically,” Mauer says. The chats drew women and men in a two-to-one ratio, and Mauer arranged for 120 blue hearts, complete with a bow and note, to go out to all. “One woman told me she got the heart and cried,” Mauer notes.

Snapshots from across the country show women lawyers encountering a vast range of daunting issues related to the coronavirus outbreak

Snapshots from across the country show women lawyers encountering a vast range of daunting issues related to the coronavirus outbreak

MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Although the circumstances vary widely, snapshots from across the country show women lawyers encountering a vast range of daunting issues related to the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from stress to income loss, additional caregiving responsibilities, isolation, and hours that don’t stop. Since March, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and business as usual changed abruptly, women have experienced unusual challenges, but some only reveal existing fissures in work dynamics, such as gendered expectations and inadequate recognition of parenting needs.

“There’s no such thing as balance. It’s overwhelming,” says Colette Foster, a lawyer working on contract with a New York litigation firm. She has a regular base of assignments, but overtime has been eliminated. A single mother with two teenage sons living in a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, Foster powers up her laptop in one bedroom, while her eighth grader logs onto his charter school’s remote learning in the living room and her other son studies for the SAT in the second bedroom.

There are endless tasks—homework, laundry, cooking, cleaning. “I don’t have any support here. It’s me and the boys. Everyone is struggling—I don’t care how they look on Zoom. But there are levels,” says Foster, who meets virtually with women lawyers with children. “Law firms are such a boys’ club when it comes to women. They keep saying they get it, but they don’t get it. They should put more weight into helping women and women of color.”

Even women lawyers who have understanding employers and supportive partners are bowing under the strain. “For anyone who is raising kids, the ability to get work done has shifted markedly,” says Beth Wilensky, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

Wilensky and her husband, also working at home, have three children, aged 7, 14, and 16. The couple divides the oversight of remote learning and complex blended school schedules, but Wilensky is acutely aware that the children are feeling the uncertainty of the times, too. “There is a huge amount of anxiety and managing emotions,” Wilensky says. “My experience is not all that unique. It’s a huge thing we are dealing with.”

A Wrench in Women’s Career Plans

“If we had a panic button, right now we’d be hitting it,” says Rachel Thomas, co-founder and chief executive officer of Lean In, a Palo Alto, California–based nonprofit that focuses on women’s career advancement. In September, the organization, in partnership with McKinsey & Company, released Women in the Workplace 2020. The study concludes that COVID-19 has disrupted workplace advancement for women and potentially is “unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”

While the research doesn’t look specifically at lawyers, it analyzes the responses of 40,000 people in 20 fields ranging from banking to engineering. The biggest COVID-19 challenges for women include anxiety over layoffs, burnout, mental health, child care and remote schooling, health of loved ones, and financial insecurity. Mothers, Black women, and senior-level women faced especially difficult struggles.

According to the U.S. Labor Department, 865,000 women—four times the number of men—dropped out of the workforce in September as families faced patchy school reopening plans. “Where there is a crisis, it’s women who are expected to step back. We’re dealing with a system set up in the 1950s,” says Amelia Costigan, senior director of the Information Center at Catalyst, a nonprofit in New York City that studies gender equality in business.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Working Parents, released by Catalyst in September, found that both women and men felt a need to hide their parenting struggles from employers. “While all parents are under enormous strain, generally speaking, mothers are bearing a greater burden than fathers, as they are disproportionately expected to fulfill household and caregiving responsibilities,” the report states.

The pandemic has led to changes in law employment. A survey by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), based in Washington, D.C., found that 62 percent of law offices reduced salaries or delayed partner draws. Over 80 percent of firms had not established start dates for first-year associates or deferred them to January 2021, and some firms rescinded employment offers to 2020 graduates.

Although NALP did not include a gender or race breakout, two recent reports supported by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Walking Out the Door, about women in law firms, and Left Out and Left Behind, on women of color, detail how existing barriers have led to a lack of gender parity in private law firms, especially for Black women—growth that may now hit further roadblocks.

Trying to Stay Afloat

Despite the challenges, women lawyers seem determined to keep their work on track, although many have had to craft rapid-fire adjustments.

Elizabeth Prelogar, an appellate litigator and partner at Cooley LLP, moved in 48 hours from Washington, D.C., to Boise, Idaho, as office closures began. Her family is now living in her childhood home with her mother, who manages remote schooling for two primary schoolers while Prelogar and her husband work remotely. “We desperately needed the help. We did it by location shifting,” Prelogar says.

Marie Claire Tran-Leung was already working in Los Angeles for Shriver Center on Poverty Law in Chicago as director of the Legal Impact Network. With children at ages 3, 5, and 9, Tran-Leung gets up at 5 in the morning for an hour of emails and then prepares her two oldest for distance learning. She and her husband divide time helping with school needs—fixing tech issues, finding materials—and watching the youngest, while the other parent carries on with work. “Right now, it’s really hard to think permanently,” she says. “We are so in the midst of the impact.”

Extra family responsibilities also come in the form of elder care. In late February, Cheryl Davis, general counsel of the Authors Guild in New York City, planned to stay temporarily with her parents in Mount Vernon, New York, to help her 82-year-old mother with medical care unrelated to coronavirus. When stay-at-home orders made daily life harder for her parents and work turned virtual, she extended the time and never left. At one point, she found herself delivering a Zoom presentation on her phone from the bathroom of her mother’s hospital room. “I was trying to sound as responsible as possible,” Davis notes. “I take refuge in practical things.”

And some people face multilayered challenges. Margarita Martinez-Baly, a solo criminal defense practitioner in Fresno, California, began doing courtroom hearings by Zoom when COVID-19 hit. She has care responsibilities for a 94-year-old aunt and shares caregiving with her sister of their 84-year-old mother, who needs daily visits, meals, and shots for diabetes. Then, three adult children in their 20s moved back home, joining a fourth one already there, so she began shopping and cooking for everyone. And that was before her husband, a public defender, contracted COVID-19 and was forced to quarantine at home.

“It’s chaotic. I’m constantly feeling guilty,” says Martinez-Baly. “We women want to make sure these things get done. I do believe there is a difference and more of a struggle for women. You just do it because it’s what we do.”

Women lawyers without family responsibilities haven’t escaped pandemic challenges either. When going remote, Susan Paulson, a litigator in the New York City Law Department, lacked the equipment she needed—a printer, scanner, desktop computer—and missed the company of colleagues. “I found it very isolating,” she says. Now, the cash-strapped city has announced a five-day furlough.

Looking for Strategies to Address Obstacles

Many women lawyers are finding new strategies to navigate the times. Maria Schindler was one month into her job as director in the legal department at PayPal in San Francisco and had a new baby when remote work kicked in. She spends extra time trying to cultivate relationships that she might have formed easily in person, arranging virtual meetings and one-on-one sessions with others.

That’s an idea championed by Rachel Thomas of Lean In. “If organizations are intentional, they can use this time to create real opportunities. Now is a time when a senior-level person could have a quick coffee, virtually, with any woman,” Thomas says. She also urges companies to reassess performance reviews, something that nearly half of human resources professionals say they are considering in a survey by the consulting firm Aon.

Jaime A. Santos, a partner in appellate litigation at Goodwin Procter LLP in Washington, D.C., worries about how the pandemic is affecting business development possibilities for junior women and people of color. “Those without tight ties find it a lot harder to generate new relationships,” Santos says. “Normally, I’d be out there speaking on panels and going to dinners.”

As it happens, Santos finds herself writing briefs in her car while one of her three young children attends a select gymnastics program and her husband looks after the other two. But she also devotes considerable time to checking in on younger colleagues, the exact emotional housework that studies show women are more likely to do. “I think people are struggling enormously, especially women,” Santos points out. “There’s a sense of ‘if I don’t push and keep leaning in, I’ll fall behind.’”

A cultural shift may be in order now, says Elizabeth Holt Andrews, an appellate litigator with Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP in San Francisco, California. She and her husband have a tightly managed home-work schedule for the care of two toddlers. Each takes a four-hour childcare shift during the day and then finishes their work from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. “At the end of the day, the work has to get done for the clients,” Andrews says.

Her firm is supportive of her parenting demands, but she rankles at the attitudes of opposing lawyers who sometimes make snide and seemingly gendered comments about late-night emails. She calls for a recommitment to “civility and professional courtesy” in the profession.

Future Directions

Whether the extra challenges women are encountering will have a long-term impact is still unknown, but some lawyers foresee trouble ahead.

Seven law professors, including Cyra Akila Choudhury at Florida International University College of Law in Miami, published an open letter to warn of the “likely negative effects” of the pandemic, citing a decline in women’s scholarly journal submissions in other fields. Law reviews and tenure committees should rethink their expectations, the professors say. “Colleagues (should) understand and accept that women are facing an unequal burden and respond accordingly to support gender equity,” the letter states.

Catalyst’s Amelia Costigan underscores that need for a new adaptability in the face of COVID-19. “Organizations that believe in diversity and inclusion need to step up,” she notes. “We are living in a chaotic time.”

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

By Cynthia L. Cooper

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York with a background as a practicing lawyer.