The recent release of a new study, ‘Women in the Workplace 2021,’ by McKinsey & Company and Lean In tells an all-too familiar story: women face unique challenges when it comes to getting ahead in their careers, and for those who juggle the additional responsibilities of childcare, it’s even harder. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the pandemic has only increased the pressure on working women while at the same time exposing the dark underbelly of the work / life balance challenges they have been grappling with for decades. Overwhelmed by today’s “always on” remote culture and the struggle to balance the demands of their personal lives, many women are exhausted to the point of considering career changes.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And it shouldn’t.
As someone who comes from a big law firm background and is now the CEO of a boutique law firm, I can attest to the fact that big law firm life can be particularly rough on everyone, but particularly women and people of color. It’s one thing to say you’re open to diversity, but it’s another to rearrange the way you do business to accommodate brilliant, talented people with different lived experiences or require non-traditional work arrangements. For too long law firms have hidden behind a sort of letter of the law when it comes to diversity rather than really taking the lead on creating workplaces that are adaptive to the particular needs of women and celebrate the skills and perspectives they bring to the practice.
We can do better. When I created our law firm I did so not just because I wanted our attorneys to be agents of change in the world. I did so because I thought that multiple-bottom line investing deserved – and required – the highest quality of legal thinking along with a special brand of creativity and client service.
A successful law practice that, at the same time, provides a workplace culture that celebrates diverse perspectives and life experience while engaging, inspiring, and supporting attorneys in the ways they need to be successful in their careers and lead happy lives.
But I also had a deep-seated belief that you can have a successful law practice that, at the same time, provides a workplace culture that celebrates diverse perspectives and life experience while engaging, inspiring, and supporting attorneys in the ways they need to be successful in their careers and lead happy lives.
What does this mean in practice?
- It means creating a flexible work policy that meets the needs of the particular individual. Our first employee is a highly skilled attorney who, when she started, had just had her second child. I knew from the moment we met that we had to have her on our team. But she was upfront about her need to work from home and she couldn’t promise to be available all the time during traditional working hours. That means she can’t work with certain clients, but I’ve never regretted it for a second and she is still with me today after 10 years.
- It means taking as a starting point that people deserve their weekends off. You shouldn’t have to choose between doing your job well and going to your kid’s sixth grade graduation. Yes sometimes longer hours are required in this job – like in most jobs – but law firms need to reconsider the “balance” in the work / life balance equation.
- It means rethinking the definition of what it means to run a successful practice. You don’t need attorneys working 2,400 hours a year. You can build a thriving practice with attorneys who work only 1,500 hours a year. I would rather turn away business than ask people to take on an unreasonable amount of work that would lead to careless errors, burnout, or even worse over the long term.
- It means ensuring that attorneys can give clients their mental, physical, and creative best selves by creating a workplace environment with the structures and policies that enable them to flourish. Simone, the brilliant attorney I took a chance on over 10 years ago, is proof of that.
The findings in the McKinsey survey should appall every one of us, and they are a wake-up call that whatever we’re trying to do to pave the way for women in the workplace isn’t happening fast enough.
The bottom line is that we must do more for women, for minorities, and, frankly, every employee, to create workplace cultures that celebrate talent and diversity of perspectives, life experiences, and life circumstances. It’s good for employees and it’s good for business.
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