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Mother’s Monday lessons: Redefining work and motherhood

Founded in 2020 by Gayatri Agnew, Mother’s Monday (the Monday after Mother’s day) celebrates examples of companies, organizations and innovations that reduce barriers mothers and caregivers face as they balance their multitude of roles. This Mother’s Monday, Burford’s VP Reda Hicks hosted a fireside chat with Equity Project Champion and White & Case Partner Tara Lee about how law firms can support mothers post-pandemic.

Below are highlights from their conversation.

Caregiving needs to be factored into post-pandemic law firm culture

The last year has offered an opportunity to redefine work-life balance for a generation and to leave behind the rigidity of traditional law firm culture. Law firms are now having conversations about remote work options that they never would have had previously, and the pandemic has proven that law firms can be profitable and successful without their teams being in the office. Indeed, some firms achieved their most successful results in history in 2020.

As one CLO put it in Burford’s 2020 Equity Project study: “In light of the Covid-19 crisis, people will become more comfortable with remote work and more effectively balance productivity with personal responsibilities …. We are more aware of each other’s home lives now than before in the office, where our personal affairs were not as frequently discussed.”

However, these gains cannot be taken for granted. Recent research by Equity Project Champion Bobbie Liebenberg and Stephanie Scharf shows that 22% of women lawyers, versus just 8% of men, were concerned that continuing to work remotely would be viewed as lacking commitment to an employer. Law firms need to find a way to allow their employees to retain their work-life balance as the world returns to normal or risk losing female talent.

Mothers should be open and honest about their time constraints 

Judges are becoming much more open to discussing schedules with litigation lawyers, and that may benefit women litigators struggling to balance the demands of multiple litigations with personal responsibilities. This, however, puts the onus on women lawyers to clear and confident in voicing their time constraints and setting expectations from the outset. Additionally, when balance simply isn’t achievable, women litigators can look for greater breadth in their practice to help manage their competing responsibilities—for instance, the litigator skill set overlaps with less time-consuming areas like investigations. 

Clients may also be more sympathetic to women lawyers’ multiple responsibilities. The number of women GCs continues to increase year-on-year, increasing the likelihood that they are also mothers and have faced many of the same challenges. Again, the onus is on women lawyers to be open and honest about their time commitments—and to build relationships and real friendships with their clients that enable them to balance responsibilities and build strong books of business.

There is an economic benefit for law firms to retain mothers

In today’s economy 40% of mothers are the primary earners for their household, yet many women lawyers still report that men are paid more when they have a family to support whereas women lawyers, under the same circumstances, are frequently paid less. According to Liebenberg and Scharf’s research, [T]hey do not compensate women because they think women can afford to make less money, because they have husbands. But I am the main money-maker [in my family].”

US Labor Department data reinforces the fact that increased childcare responsibilities due to the pandemic led to 865,000 women—four times the number of men—to drop out of the workforce in September 2020 as families faced uncertain school reopening plans. A recent study by McKinsey & Company estimated that global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector.

If women feel that they have to choose between being a mother and being a successful lawyer, then we will continue to see the high levels of female attrition from law firms that we have seen for the last decade.

Losing a generation of women lawyers will mean immeasurable lost value for law firms. Studies have shown that companies with more gender diversity on their executive teams outperform in terms of profitability and value creation. Research from the International Labor Organization’s Bureau for Employer Activities proves that a gender diverse workforce can result in increases in productivity, competitiveness and profitability by 5-20%.

Law firm leaders have a role in supporting childcare challenges

The next generation of young men and women lawyers are interested in having a successful legal career and while balancing their lives outside of the office. This will become a competitive component to law firm hiring in the next few years. Law firm leaders need to advocate for partner promotion for people who are working on flex schedules so that there is visibility integrated into the leadership structure. It needs to be made clear that parents will not be penalized for taking parental leave. The prospect of losing annual bonuses or promotion opportunities can be a deterrent for male and female lawyers alike.

Male colleagues should be encouraged to take all their available paternity leave. This will help to normalize and destigmatize shared childcare responsibilities. Only 23% of large firms offer 14 to 20 weeks of paid paternity leave, compared with 43% that offer the same amount of time for maternity leave, a recent Major, Lindsey & Africa survey found, demonstrating that law firms continue to fall short on paid parental leave for men. As Tara Lee put it: “In some ways it’s not motherhood that needs to be redefined, but fatherhood.”


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About the speakers

Reda Hicks is a Vice President with responsibility for building new business with US law firms and companies for Burford, with a special focus on Texas-based organizations. Prior to joining Burford, she was Senior Counsel for deugro (USA), Inc., a global freight forwarding and project logistics solutions organization.

Tara Lee is an Equity Project Champion and a Partner at White & Case and one of the leading trial lawyers in the US. She was named the US Trial Lawyer of the Year in 2017 by Benchmark Litigation, the first woman ever to receive that distinction.