The Impact of the Pandemic on Women Lawyers

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work. As members of the legal industry, we have witnessed the near overnight shift to remote working. Many have argued that as a section of the workforce that often takes on a bigger share of home-schooling and childcare, women could be hit disproportionately harder by the current crisis. For instance, in a recently published policy brief, the UN Secretary-General stated that across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are exacerbated for women. However, what are the important takeaways for women going forward? In this article, I share some observations and offer suggestions on how women lawyers can think about the pandemic and our work lives beyond that. 

1. Rethink remote working as an equalizer. 

Remote working should be considered the great equalizer. For instance, consider business development. Since the onset of COVID-19, there are very limited opportunities for business development through traditional client entertainment avenues such as sports, dinners or much sought after theater tickets. All lawyers, men and women, are now forced to rethink and reimagine how to undertake business development efforts. 

Remote working has also created a very promising environment for women lawyers to step into roles and take up professional responsibilities which may otherwise be difficult if they are also managing family needs. For instance, leadership or management positions within organizations no longer require travel or in-person meetings and are excellent opportunities to explore at this time. 

Some women might be hesitant to undertake such positions because of the messiness of working from home. But please remember that remote working has leveled the field for us in this regard as well. We are all now on the same Zoom calls occupying the same amount of screen space. Most of us (men and women) have been Zoom-bombed with kids and pets in the background. The lines between home life and work life have blurred, and we are all more human, aware and vulnerable to each other. We have seen a window into the chaotic home life of not just women lawyers but their male colleagues as well. 

2. Continue to build your skills and personal brand. 

While organizations are trying to successfully navigate the challenges of COVID-19, the changing nature of our roles and responsibilities does provide an opportunity to assess and build our skill set. Use the time to seek out particular assignments that enhance your understanding of a different (and hopefully, in high demand) area of the law and work with specific teams that enhance your skills and network. For instance, you can seek to become an expert on the complex array of COVID-19 related regulations in a particular industry. Or as another example, if you are a transactional lawyer, you can seek assignments in the restructuring practice to give you a deeper understanding of a complementary area of the law. 

Women lawyers should also think about ways to increase their visibility while not in the office. For instance, they can ask to be part of pitches or client meetings, host webinars, speak on panels—all within the parameters of working from home. Personal branding also remains critical in these times. Review your LinkedIn profile and make sure you have an active online presence. Be sure to keep your professional bio updated and include any presentations that you are giving or have attended. Comment on your colleagues’ posts (rather than just liking them) because the latter gets you more visibility on social media algorithms. Create and post original content if you can. 

The pandemic has taught us that geographic location no longer matters and that we can effectively work from anywhere as long as we have a strong skillset to deliver. 

3. Be strategic and comprehensive in your 2020 performance review. 

Our current chaos makes us natural multitaskers and that skill is in high demand right now. Be sure to highlight your ability to multitask and successfully juggle various work and personal obligations in your annual performance review. This is an opportunity for us to boldly describe the billable and non-billable contributions we are making to our workplaces. Advocate for yourself in your review and highlight all that you have achieved during this stressful time. Be sure to describe matters that you have completed on time and within budget. Provide details on how you have managed to make your working day more flexible to support other obligations. If you have fallen behind on any metrics, be sure to explain and contrast against another performance metric where you have performed well and excelled. 

Women lawyers who lead teams should also include their leadership ability and achievement in their review. We are exceedingly exercising emotional intelligence, resilience and empathy in our interpersonal relationships in this current climate and they make us better leaders. They help us successfully adapt to a changing environment and overcome crisis (big or small) on a daily basis. These accomplishments should be included in your performance assessment. If you are a manager, support your team that is struggling with challenges of work and family. Make sure you document in your review any creative initiatives you have led and any successes with your team. 

Your 2020 performance review should shine a light on your holistic approach to problem solving and your ability to deliver value to your organization in these times. 

4. Think about the elements of your remote working environment you want to 
retain post- COVID-19. 

While it is hard to imagine right now, there will come a time when COVID-19 and the mandatory remote working scenario will be behind us. I would urge women lawyers not to be too quick to give up on the flexibility and other supportive elements of this new normal. Embrace the elements that have worked for you and be prepared to ask for them to be incorporated in your working life post-COVID-19. For instance, do you now want to work remote a certain amount of time? Certain days of the week? Do you want flexible start and end times? Technological advancement has made video conferences easy, accessible and acceptable and can replace face to face meetings. You can redesign your work week with a few days of remote work. Law firm employers might be more open to these discussions as many of them will actually be looking to reduce their real estate footprint. Workplaces will become more agile so be on the front of that. Be confident that you can deliver high quality work even working remotely. 

As always, messaging is critical. When you have these discussions with leadership in your organization, reinforce that you can adapt and stay flexible with the stakeholders. The COVID-19 pandemic has an ever-changing landscape and so acknowledge that the needs of your teams, organization and family will change. Staying flexible will be one of your biggest strengths and no small feat. 

5. Prioritize your mental and physical health. 

Prioritize your mental and physical health. If there is anything this year has taught us, it is that health and wellness is critical to our performance. Identify and carve out time for your mental and physical health and well-being. Then unapologetically work to protect that time and achieve your personal goals. 
Many people tend to view 2020 as a write-off year. But this is also a year of significant learning, reflection and growth. And, more importantly, it can also be a year where we take steps to redefine how we think of our long-term careers.

By Poonam Kumar
Poonam Kumar is a partner in the corporate practice at DLA Piper and is based in the firm’s Minneapolis office. Kumar’s practice focuses on complex cross-border transactions for large Fortune 500 companies and includes a wide variety of  transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, spin-offs, joint ventures and corporate restructurings. Kumar is active in her firm’s diversity initiatives and is a co-chair of Mosaic, DLA’s affinity resource group for diverse partners and counsel. 

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