The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the legal profession and imposed unprecedented burdens on women lawyers. During a panel discussion at the upcoming Women Legal 2021 conference, a virtual event that will take place on March 11-12, Roberta Liebenberg, senior partner, Fine Kaplan and Black, and Stephanie Scharf, partner, Scharf Banks Marmor LLC, will share results from a national survey conducted by their consulting firm, The Red Bee Group, LLC, and commissioned by the American Bar Association (ABA) on the extent of impacts of COVID-19. ARK talked to Liebenberg and Scharf ahead of the 15th annual Women Legal conference about the policies and practices that can better support women in the legal profession.

Liebenberg and Scharf both continue to practice law, with more than 45 years and 35 years of experience, respectively. With few women practicing law at the onset of their careers, they both quickly became advocates for gender equality in the legal profession.

“From a very early start I was passionately invested in ensuring that women lawyers could advance and succeed at the same rate as their male colleagues and that they would have a level playing field to do so,” said Liebenberg, pictured left, who was one of the founders and first presidents of the Metropolitan Richmond Women’s Bar Association and formed the first women owned law firm in Philadelphia that concentrated on complex commercial litigation.

Scharf, who founded the NAWL Annual Survey of Women in Law Firms, shared similar sentiments, noting early on in her career she noticed a  tremendous “off-ramping” of the women in the firm despite their  qualifications. “They were not progressing at the same rate as their male  colleagues,” said Scharf, pictured right. “And that was true at all levels,  young associates, mid-level associates, up through young partners. By the  time you got to senior associates, there were very, very few women.”

Later in their careers, Liebenberg and Scharf each served as chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and served together as co-chairs of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law. As a result of their shared interests, Liebenberg and Scharf launched the first empirical research on the underrepresentation of women as first chairs at trial and lead counsel, one of many publications they co-authored.  

Amid the government shut-down due to COVID-19, Liebenberg and Scharf fielded and designed a study through their consulting firm, The Red Bee Group, to take a close look at the impact of the pandemic on the legal profession, which was published in late March 2020.  This survey led to a second national study, commissioned by the ABA in collaboration with The Red Bee Group, which received more than 4,000 responses. “This is the largest survey we believe has ever taken place by the legal profession,” noted Scharf.  The results from the survey include how the pandemic has affected women lawyers and lawyers of color, the prospects for lawyers and law practice as we emerge from the pandemic, and the resources lawyers especially value in the practice of law.

Liebenberg and Scharf will speak to these issues during the panel discussion, The Impact of COVID-19 on Women in the Legal Profession, on the first day of the Women Legal 2021 virtual conference. The panel will also offer actionable best practices, strategies, and concrete solutions law firms and individuals can take to address the problem as we move forward from the pandemic.

“This pandemic has had an untoward effect on women with children and especially women with young children,” said Scharf. The blurring of home life and professional life has caused a significant increase in stress and anxiety for women in the legal profession, noted Liebenberg. “Women, especially with young children, are responsible for childcare, home schooling, housekeeping, all these additional responsibilities while trying to juggle their professional obligations,” she said. “And we do know that for many women, outside childcare was simply not available.”

The need for policies to support women

The stress induced from barriers and a lack of work-life balance has been shown to drive women out of the legal profession, calling for a change in policies and practices such as stronger flex time policies, part-time policies, and a leave of absence for a year or two, according to Liebenberg and Scharf.

“Firms have to develop different policies and practices about the course of careers in a firm in order to keep the widest array of talent that the profession has to offer,” said Scharf. “Unless firms rethink how they’re going to give everyone who has talent the support they need to progress, we’re going to end up in five to 10 years with a bunch of firms that lack women and lawyers of color in large numbers and are going to be very unappealing to clients and to the world at large.”

Liebenberg foresees a similar future for firms if these issues continue to go unaddressed. “If women and lawyers of color are overlooked for assignments as a result of the pandemic, they may leave their law firms and other organizations, which will then really be at a competitive disadvantage,” she said.

Updated policies and practices such as flex and part-time would also allow legal professionals the ability to further plan the future of their careers, explained Liebenberg. “It’s important to destigmatize the use of flex time and part time and make sure that leadership at the top endorse these policies so that the lawyers who use them are not adversely impacted in their career development,” she said. “It’ll mostly be women but hopefully men as well, who can utilize these policies to achieve a better balance of their personal and professional obligations and keep their career trajectory intact.”

The pandemic is a tremendous opportunity for organizations and law firms to rethink how they want to frame their culture and the individuals they want to attract, explained Scharf. “Careers don’t happen only because of the effort that individuals make,” she said. “Careers happen because the law firm in which someone works has a structure and a culture and even a plan for advancing someone up through the ranks.”

Liebenberg and Scharf will be joined by Paulette Brown, senior partner, chief diversity & inclusion officer, Locke Lord LLP, for the panel discussion, The Impact of COVID-19 on Women in the Legal Profession, at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, March 11, the first day of the Women Legal 2021 virtual event. Click here for more information, including the full agenda and registration.