Women Lawyers are Held Back by Childcare Responsibilities: What are law firms doing about it?

The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) issued the One Third By 2020 Challenge in 2006, calling for law firms to have one-third of their equity partners be women by 2020. At the end of 2019, law firms collectively had achieved only 19 percent.

One reason for the slower than predicted ascent of women lawyers to ownership positions in law firms is that women bear the major responsibility for childcare.  Tech-assisted flexibility makes it possible for women to service clients, but that flexibility doesn’t extend into the “realm of developing a book of business,” according to Jennifer Minter, Chair of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney’s Corporate section.

Minter is spot on in her observations that business development is the big obstacle to women’s advancement in law firms.  As she notes, “Some women don’t have the resources to undertake business development during off-hours, and therefore often get stuck being ‘worker bees’ with a limited ability to move up the ladder.  I don’t think most law firms necessarily view that as their problem.”  They consider it to be “the individual’s problem,” says Minter.

Read more in this article, originally published in Today’s General Counsel, where other women lawyers join Minter in the conversation. Read about the challenges of attending meetings outside the office, participating in client pitches, and being available and in the room when important decisions are made.

This is the single most challenging issue for women lawyers.  Although law firms have made positive strides toward providing generous parental leave and accommodations for nursing mothers, the problem is much bigger and requires a more comprehensive solution.  As children grow beyond infancy, the responsibilities for childcare multiply to include school issues, after school activities , help with homework … and the list goes on and on.  Some women are not willing to delegate many of those responsibilities to others, and that is where the rubber meets the road.

It is a very thorny issue, and women lawyers across the globe are grappling with it.  They are proud of their accomplishments and want to remain in the profession, but they do not want to be marginalized.  The indisputable fact is that the women have the babies and want to assure that those children thrive — and that means TIME with their children.  On site childcare would go a long way toward ensuring that women (and also men) can achieve a successful balance between good parenting and successful rainmaking, but there has to be a fervent commitment to the concept and dedicated resources to accomplish the goal.

Minter is hopeful that, as more women get into management positions, things will change.  She views it as a business problem that is costing firms money because women lawyers are not able to reach their full potential.  She hopes that it will be a shared problem that law firms and lawyers can participate in solving.

I, too, am hopeful, but I also am somewhat skeptical.  Clients and money still rule the legal profession, and until clients make it clear that they expect the same thing for women in law firms that women in-house counsel are experiencing, the pendulum is not likely to swing.  But all the supportive demands of corporate clients will fly out the window when the crunch is on.  That is when the client turns.

We all know it, but we do not know what to do about it.  Many solutions are not practical and are likely to be perceived as favoring women.  The Old Guard will scoff at attempts to accommodate women, and those attitudes will feed implicit bias.

It is very complicated.


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