2020: A Watershed Year for Women in Law?

To say 2020 was a historic year is an understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic forced people around the world to stay home and the legal industry shifted to 100% remote working almost overnight. Superimposed on the pandemic were politically charged events. The televised murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, sparked ongoing protests in the United States and prompted the country to re-examine the systematic racism that is ingrained in our society, and in the legal industry in particular.

That same year, the United States elected its first female vice president, Kamala Harris, who is also the first black Indian vice president. In addition to the election of Kamala Harris, the United States elected its first open senator from the transgender state and two openly gay black men to Congress. These social and political changes in 2020 affected everyone, but highlighted gender issues and the urgent changes the legal industry, an industry traditionally slow to respond to, needs to make. With all of these issues highlighted, many of us expected that 2020 would be a turning point for legal women where these gender and diversity issues would improve dramatically. However, an examination of these questions shows that while we are all aware of the challenges women face, implementation of policies in support of inclusive environments is still a work in progress.

2020 Impact from the perspective of women in the legal profession

Flexible planning: For many of us, the sudden switch to remote work, although initially adapting, has enabled us to multitask during the work day. Many of us entered the legal practice believing that we would have difficulty finding a balance between work and personal life. However, by 2020, the days were over when we were forced to choose between work and home. While for some it was initially difficult to find the balance, the flexible scheduling allowed women, especially women with families at home, to do family tasks around video conferencing and court appointments, which enabled a better work-life balance.

Diversity, Equal Opportunities and Inclusion initiatives: The death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement inspired legal organizations to implement rigorous workplace policies and programs aimed at recruiting, retaining, promoting and engaging diverse employees to reduce systematic racism. We saw clients and prospective candidates develop zero tolerance policies for companies that did not quickly adapt to different staffing levels and initiatives. Many of us welcomed these changes as they appeared to be producing results, and we saw many firms and companies starting to recruit women and people of color for their top positions. In public we saw several female lawyers hired for top positions in the Biden administration. Reports also showed an increase in the hiring of black women as deans of law schools, with 14% of law schools going to have deans by fall 2021. With business and corporations making diversity, equality and inclusion a top priority, many of us were optimistic about the longevity of these initiatives and hoped these changes would be groundbreaking for generations of female lawyers to come.

Isolation: While 2020 brought many benefits, many of the existing challenges that women lawyers previously faced have been exacerbated by remote working. Women in legal professions have traditionally been overlooked for desirable roles and promotions and excluded from opportunities to get a “seat at the table”. Exclusion is far worse for black women. The pandemic exacerbated these issues as a full-time remote schedule meant we no longer had the opportunity to spend “face-time” with key players in our organizations. Female lawyers, especially women of color, have been isolated and separated from their organizations. In addition, many female lawyers continued to work for such companies without their managers having to “check-in” regularly, while their law firms and corporations implemented diversity, equity and inclusion guidelines in response to national payroll, which resulted in female lawyers meeting more frequently than their male colleagues are very concerned about being on leave or being fired. With these concerns came a decline in the mental health of attorneys, whose mental health was already disproportionately affected by the demands of the legal profession. Many in-laws turned to drinking to ease the anxiety that came with uncertainty as to whether their position in their organization was secure. 35% of women said their alcohol consumption increased at the beginning of the pandemic, compared to just 29% of men.

Sudden exits by women: Unfortunately, we’ve seen women leave their jobs completely. The appeal of JD’s preferred positions with less demanding working hours led many highly qualified lawyers to give up their lucrative careers in order to promise a real work-life balance. Legal employers have done very little to keep these women in jobs that traditionally lack diversity and flexibility.

What’s next for employers?

As many of us begin to return to our offices on a regular basis, we hope to return to firms, businesses, and organizations that are different from the way we left them. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that the profession’s affinity to return to business as usual is, in some cases, stronger than its willingness and determination to transform its organizations. Even now with law firms reopening, many women are feeling increased pressure to immediately return to a full-time position in the office and give up any type of remote work to help maintain a balance. Approximately 22% of women who responded to an ABA survey in October 2020 said they are “very” or “extremely” concerned that if they continue to work remotely, they will be considered unaffiliated with their company . This widespread fear among women of being overlooked and undervalued if they continue to work remotely is the unfortunate impact of a legal profession that sticks to tradition and puts productivity above the well-being of its key players. There are few reports of legal employers managing work time expectations and implementing mental health programs to improve the health of their respective employees. Without the implementation of such programs and a change in the work environment, the mental health problems that have exacerbated through 2020 will persist. It is very likely that, if no changes are made, as more legal employers return to business as usual, we will see an alarming brain drain of women in the legal profession and the mental health of women working in the world Profession will continue to suffer.

Regardless of whether legal employers like it or not, clients and new lawyers are no longer satisfied with the bare minimum when it comes to hiring female lawyers and attorneys and working in an inclusive environment in their respective companies. In addition to achieving social justice and eliminating systematic racism, legal employers must take into account that clients and large corporations have increasingly demanding requirements for working with firms that actively hire different lawyers and use these lawyers in their active affairs. In addition, employers need to go beyond just “looking” at inclusivity and instead ensure that what they are portraying is truly reflected in the policies and internal culture of their organization. For most law firms and legal employers, trying to retain and hire female lawyers and create an inclusive environment to sustain these efforts has been a slow process. As women continue to feel overlooked for desirable matters and positions even after the monumental year 2020, it has become apparent that moving to a more inclusive legal profession takes more than a global pandemic and more than nationwide protests for social justice.


While many want to leave 2020 behind and never look back, the experiences of female lawyers should serve as inspiration for the blueprint of how to proceed. The collective experiences of women in the legal profession in 2020, especially women of color, show that 2020 faced many challenges and triumphs that employers should all take with them in advocating an inclusive work environment. These experiences should have made 2020 a turning point for the mother-in-law, but after taking off the rose-colored glasses in 2021, it is clear that such a moment has not yet come. In the future, we hope to see steady progress towards continued flexible working hours, inclusive work cultures and a focus on the general welfare of female lawyers. We must learn the lessons of 2020 if we truly want a more diverse, equitable and inclusive legal profession.

—Summer employee Stephanie Schorsch helped research this article.

Lanique A. Roberts is an associate at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel in the firm’s Philadelphia office. She is a member of the litigation and family law department of the firm.

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