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August 09, 2023

Want to keep women lawyers in the profession? Get creative

Law firms that want to recruit and retain women in their workplaces need to focus on the f-word —flexibility. It’s the key to keeping top talent, especially for working mothers, according to a new report from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

A peek into the results from the ground-breaking report occurred at the program “Is There a Penalty? Parenthood and Child Caregiving and Its Impact on Gender Equality in the Legal Profession,” which was presented Aug. 5 at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver.

The report is based on survey responses from more than 8,000 lawyers nationwide and a dozen focus group interviews conducted in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in February and March 2023. The full report, “Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers: Where We Are Now and How to Move Forward,” which will be available in September, sheds light on some of the differences experienced by male and female lawyers who are parents, in terms of the impact on their careers.

The survey showed that many parents felt having children had a negative impact on their careers, and more than half of working mothers felt they were perceived as less committed and less competent by their employers.

“It’s important for us to start flipping the narrative. All you ever hear about is the motherhood penalty,” said Roberta Liebenberg, who conducted the survey with Red Bee Group colleague Stephanie Scharf. She said employers should hire mothers for their ability to multitask and more. “Who else is more laser-focused on how to get things done?” she said.

The survey showed that women are the ones who are overwhelmingly responsible for what’s happening at home, from arranging child care and health care to meal preparation and organizing extracurricular activities, Scharf said. Women, especially mothers of dependent children, carry a double load, which leads to stress and burnout. And high stress and burnout leads to extreme guilt about working.

Mothers and fathers have very different workday experiences, Liebenberg said. Men acknowledged that they couldn’t do what they do unless they had the support at home from their wives, who serve as the primary caregiver for children. However, women often lose out on mentors and sponsors as well as business development opportunities — and are “even advised by colleagues to put their children on hold if they really want to have a successful career,” Liebenberg said. Half of the women survey participants indeed postponed having children for career-related reasons, Scharf said.

Another sticking point with working mothers is their income, which they thought was not commensurate with the earnings of men. “Pay equity is a huge issue,” said panelist Michelle Browning Coughlin, of counsel at ND Galli Law LLC.

These “deaths by a thousand cuts” result in many women leaving the practice of law, Liebenberg said. If employers want to keep talent, they must change the culture of their workplace to ensure it will be supportive and inclusive of mothers, she said.

“This has to be a shared, equal responsibility,” Liebenberg said. She quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg: “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them responsibility for bringing up the next generation.”

Former ABA President Paulette Brown, who oversaw the focus groups, emphasized the need for written data-based policies in the workplace. “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” She said law firms’ format of billable hours hurts parents. “Do we really need to live our lives in 50-minute increments?” she said. Liebenberg agreed, saying that billable hours penalize efficiency.

More employees want to work remotely and have flexible schedules. There are creative ways to accommodate remote work, Scharf said, pointing to a corporation’s law department that each month works from home three weeks and comes together as a team to work in-house for one week. “Where there is a will, there’s a way,” she said.

Among recommendations for employer offerings to keep women lawyers in the workplace:

  • Ability to work flexible hours
  • Mentoring and sponsorship programs for women lawyers with children
  • Emergency child care resources
  • Part-time work
  • Written standards and procedures for determining compensation

“If you want to retain and attract the type of talent that in-house counsel are demanding of their law firm, you need to create a culture that is mother-friendly, that is inclusive and that provides the types of resources so that your mothers can actually advance and succeed,” Liebenberg said. “This is not rocket science.”

The panel was moderated by Juanita Harris, associate vice president and senior legal counsel, Labor & Employment, at DIRECTV.