Gender Equality in Law and the Precedent of Pandemic
Earlier this week, my colleague Bob Ambrogi blogged about seven ways that the pandemic will change the practice of law. Bob argues that post pandemic, lawyers will no longer fear technology, firms will embrace remote practice and reduce physical footprints, more legal services will be delivered online and courts will accelerate innovation. But there’s one change notably lacking from Bob’s post: the impact of pandemic on gender equality within the legal profession.
As the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and law firms and quarantined families, a few things changed. For starters, the burden of childcare in many households by necessity fell to men as well as women. Granted, the impacts may not have been 50-50 down the middle – in many cases, women were still stuck with more responsibilities than their partners – but even so, for the first time, men discovered what it was like even for brief spurts to live the life without seams that most lawyer moms regularly endure.
But there’s a second thing that’s changed as well. We’ve also become more tolerant of kids in the background on the Zoom call, or a brief delivered at two o’clock in the morning because a lawyer-parent was trying to make the seven year old sit through class earlier in the day. Where I once sweated over the big reveal – i.e., whether to disclose that I had kids — over the past few weeks, I found myself throwing caution to the wind and blithely explaining that I needed to reschedule a virtual deposition call because it conflicted with my daughter’s Phd exams and I’d promised to be on call to keep the dog from barking and distracting her. And just before pandemic reached my state, I told a judge that I would not be traveling to a status conference because I had to be available at home to take care of my daughter after her wisdom teeth were pulled. In pandemic, we’ve lifted the curtain separating our personal and professional lives, and for me, the transparency is liberating.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect these forgiving attitudes to continue when we eventually return to work. We humans have short memories, and six months from now when we’re largely back to normal, the days of dad tussling with a screaming infant while negotiating a deal on the phone will long be forgotten. Courts will once again demand physical appearances; law firms will demand in-office facetime or withhold benefits from those who choose to work off site.
But here’s what won’t change – women lawyers’ belief that we can be just as professional on a conference call with the three year old scribbling under the desk. That we can be just as persuasive in a brief that’s been churned out from home while burning the midnight oil after the kids have gone to bed as we can if it was written from a desk. That we can rock the networking scene just as effectively by scheduling Zoom happy hours with other lawyers to discuss business as we could face to face hobnobbing at an after-hours conference. Of course, many of us (like me) believed this all along and demanded our due anyway — but now women’s confidence in ourselves has become universal.
So what does that mean? The next time a woman asks to remain on a high profile case while she’s out on maternity leave, she’ll make a powerful case that she can handle it just like during pandemic. She won’t take no for an answer. The next time a judge schedules a 5 pm in-person scheduling hearing, a woman lawyer will insist on the ability to do it remotely because she has to pick up her kids from school at three. She won’t take no for an answer either. If women receive push back on their demands, they can cite to the pandemic precedent and fight back with the absolute conviction born of actual experience that they can make it work.
Pandemic may not permanently change the profession when it comes to work life balance and gender equality. But pandemic has changed us – the women who internalized the legal profession’s notion that having kids prevents us from being effective, or makes us appear unprofessional because it was drummed into our heads so many times. After pandemic, women now finally believe in ourselves. Which is what it takes for change to happen for real. Hear us roar!
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