Dismantling the Obstacles Facing Mothers in Law Firms


By Gene Commander
Gene Commander Inc.

Note: This article is part 2 of a two-part series on the ABA’s recent parenthood report.

The evidence is unmistakable: law firms are failing to adequately support the careers of lawyers who are mothers. A recent report from the American Bar Association, Legal Careers of Parents and Child Caregivers: Results and Best Practices from a National Study of the Legal Profession, highlights the multifaceted challenges that mothers face when working in law firms. As discussed in part 1, the ABA’s nationwide survey reveals that mothers are much more likely than fathers to confront negative experiences and barriers at work, including reduced compensation, fewer career opportunities and more disparaging comments about their status as a parent. The survey further finds that women are struggling to navigate the oft-competing demands of their careers and families, with the great majority of child-raising duties still falling on women. Stress and burnout are rampant among mothers at law firms.

Meanwhile, law firms have neglected to embrace lawyers’ dual roles as working parents and professionals and have failed to institute policies and professional development initiatives that help parents thrive. As a result, even as women’s share of the lawyer population has grown, women continue to “vote with their feet” by leaving law firm jobs. And the women who do stay at law firms are rarely promoted to the highest levels, while they see their income stagnate compared to that of their male counterparts.

Law firms pay a steep price for neglecting women’s professional needs. In the face of a shrinking talent supply brought about by plunging law school enrollment levels and other demographic and economic trends, firms are squandering the vitally important pool of female talent. By failing to make a true home for women, law firms consign themselves to an ineffective and costly catch-and-release talent model in which they invest time and effort in recruiting and training female lawyers only to see them leave for career opportunities that better meet their needs. Ultimately, these talent models will deprive law firms of the staffing needed to meet client expectations and to sustain the business enterprise.

The ABA’s survey of 8,000-plus members of the legal profession yields valuable insights into what law firms can do to effectively support women — and the findings are well worth the attention of law firm leaders.

The survey illuminates the major reasons mothers would choose to exit their positions at law firms: 42% cite the number of required billable hours and 34% identify work-life balance as reasons to leave. Among mothers of dependent children, 37% said they would leave for an opportunity that provides greater ability to work remotely, and 34% would leave for more time to spend with dependent children. On the other side of the coin, 60% of mothers of dependent children reported that they would stay at a firm that allowed them to work a schedule that fit with their caretaking responsibilities.

With this data in mind, the ABA report offers a set of 13 best practices to support mothers. This article focuses on seven key recommendations.

  1. Leadership should fully support family-friendly work policies.

The ABA stresses the importance of listening to parents across the full spectrum of the law firm to ensure that firm leaders implement supportive policies that truly meet the needs of their lawyers with family responsibilities — not just policies with superficial appeal. Then, firm leaders should institute the most promising strategies, alongside benchmarks and timelines. Some of the most effective types of policies are addressed next.

  1. Implement flexible work policies.

The ability to choose part-time or flex-time schedules and remote work options is vital to supporting mothers, according to the ABA. Furthermore, the lawyers who avail themselves of these opportunities should not be treated as any less committed or less valuable to the firm. Nor should these lawyers forfeit opportunities for career advancement or raises. Substantial research shows hybrid workers are just as productive or more productive than in-office workers, while the ABA’s own survey reveals that parents believe hybrid work better enables them to balance work and family responsibilities. However, because those working from home may miss out on opportunities for career development, firm leaders should redouble their efforts to provide meaningful supervision, training and networking opportunities to support hybrid workers.

  1. Offer high-quality family health insurance, parental leave policies and child care resources.

Health insurance and leave policies should be generous enough to enable parents to give sick children all the care they need — and to fulfill caregiving responsibilities for aging parents. While valuable for all working parents, generous leave policies are indispensable for single parents. Moreover, both parents should be encouraged to take their allotted parental leave and should suffer neither criticism nor adverse career consequences when they do. Family-friendly resources such as on-site lactation rooms likewise provide meaningful support. The ABA also highlights the importance of scheduling both work and social events during midday hours when parents are less likely to be attending to their children.

  1. Adjust compensation and billable hour policies.

Rather than relying on rigid billable hour requirements, which often create particularly high levels of stress for mothers, the ABA recommends that law firms adopt more holistic compensation models that recognize the value of other skills — such as efficiency and quality of work and efforts to develop and retain less experienced lawyers. These models can further bolster women’s careers by rewarding all valuable contributions to the business enterprises, since women often take on a disproportionate share of responsibilities for building supportive workplace cultures. In addition, law firms should create clear guidelines for compensation that incentivize the desired outcome and mirror the firm’s values, mission and vision. And women should be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts when it comes to client and leadership transition decisions.

  1. Establish leadership training and development programs to advance mothers’ careers.

The ABA survey reveals that several types of legal training and development programs are particularly valuable in expanding the ranks of women in leadership roles: mentoring and sponsorship programs focused on mothers, leadership and business management programs focused on the next generation of firm leaders, and written standards and procedures governing promotions as well as leadership and ownership transitions.

  1. Create on-ramp programs to help mothers.

Many mothers are interested in returning to the practice of law after taking time off when they start their families or care for aging parents, and the ABA suggests that on-ramp programs that provide a clear path and supportive mentoring and training opportunities can help meet the needs of both mothers and firms. On-ramp programs normalize women’s decisions to return to work after a hiatus and allow firms to benefit from the legal skills, business acumen and cultural understanding these lawyers have gained from their prior experience in private practice. This future-focused approach includes conveying to women from the very outset that the door will remain open to them if they choose to take time away from the firm.

  1. Use metrics to track progress on women’s issues.

To determine whether new policies and practices are improving women’s law firm experience, the ABA believes it’s crucial to track the appropriate metrics. Metrics will vary depending on the firm, but useful measures include attrition rates, amount of parental leave taken, compensation and career advancement levels and types of work assignments and business development opportunities.

In sum, as law firm leaders confront a shrinking overall talent pool, it should be a no-brainer for firms to make better use of the swelling ranks of women lawyers. But law firms have thus far largely failed to effectively support the needs of mothers and promote their advancement within the firm. With the guidance provided by the ABA report, firm leaders have the opportunity to dismantle the obstacles facing women and to fully integrate female lawyers into the culture and leadership pipeline of thriving law firms. By doing so, law firms will be better prepared to meet the needs and expectations of their increasingly diverse clients, leading to sustained financial and professional success of the firm and its talent.

Gene Commander is an executive business counselor for the legal industry, with a special focus on Smart Growth in Action: 2030™ through proactive business growth strategies for law firms. He has more than 40 years of experience in the legal profession while practicing construction law with small, midsize, regional and national firms. Gene’s past roles include serving on the management committee of a midsize firm and as managing shareholder in the Denver office of an Am Law 100 firm. Through Gene Commander Inc., he now helps law firms stay ahead of the curve by adapting to shifting economic, demographic and professional trends. He can be reached at [email protected].

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