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Women's Leadership Articles

What COVID-19 tells us about the future of work for lawyers

Natalie Runyon

24 Aug 2021

“The people coming back to the office are different to the ones that left”  summarises the key theme from the recent Chief Talent Officer roundtable hosted by the Thomson Reuters Institute.

Indeed, COVID-19 shifted work patterns for everyone. However, there were some subtle differences between men and women, according to research conducted in 2021 by Thomson Reuters Institute in collaboration with the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals and the Association of Corporate Counsel Foundation. Women lawyers were more likely to find development and progression challenging before and after the pandemic. More specifically:

  • Women saw an increase in work hours more commonly than their male counterparts (54 versus 45 percent).
  • Moreover, more women experienced a reduction in compensation while hours remaining the same at (21 versus 14 percent) and taking on additional responsibilities without pay (39 versus 32 percent).
  • There also were positive outcomes for women. Women were more likely to have received a bonus (38 versus 31 percent) and/or promotion (13 versus seven percent).

Wellbeing benefits reported by more men

A surprising 70 percent of women—versus 54 percent of men—reported a negative impact on wellbeing and most likely, the extra negative impact on wellbeing is likely due to additional caregiving responsibilities. Conversely men were more likely to report a positive impact on wellbeing. Our survey results indicate that male lawyers were more likely than female lawyers to have experienced an improvement in work-life balance.

Positive effects on men lawyers’ productivity

Men were more likely than women to report improved productivity impact (38 versus 31 percent) and less likely than women to report a negative impact on work output.

Separate research from the Thomson Reuter’s Institutes ‘Future Work Practices’ (FWP), which assesses the preferences of top partners from around the world, indicates that to maximise performance, engagement and retention, all lawyers want clarity, control, and support. By diving more deeply into the data, slight variations between men and women start to emerge:

  • 91 percent of men compared to 84 percent of women prefer working full time;
  • there is a similar preference in flexibility and average working hours with only a .3 difference (1.9 days for men versus 2.2 days for women in working remotely); and,
  • there is a seven percent differential (16 percent for women versus nine percent of men) in desiring to work part time.

To create a sense of control and autonomy, insights gleaned from the FWP research indicated that more men strongly agreed that their firm’s structure, processes, training, and support enabled them to dictate what they work on (35 versus 29 percent of men to women) and to determine when and how they work (29 versus 24 percent of men to women strongly agreed).

Part of having a sense of control over your day in juggling work demands and commitments outside of work involves boundaries. Preferences across top performing partners was mixed.

  • No boundaries: Surprisingly, a large number of men and women (52 versus 41 percent) felt that no boundaries should be set with clients.
  • Restricted workday hours: The research shows that 28 percent of men versus 21 percent of women preferred restricted workday hours by setting expectations that lawyers would not be available between the hours of 11pm and 7am.

Finally, there were desires in between these polarities. Some lawyers wanted the ability to block out time during the week for school pick-ups and exercise. More lawyers based in the United Kingdom craved contact-free weekends, while others wished to work it out with clients citing that their customers were reasonable.

What is true is that flexibility is here to stay, and the needs, wants and preferences for how to work best is very individualised. To make the most out of the hybrid work environment and still maintaining high performance, teamwork, business development, and developing junior lawyers are the three most critical requirements, and it is the responsibility of both employer and employee to proactively define and communicate what works best:

  • For employers, continue to demonstrate flexibility in how women and men partners develop business because there are noteworthy differences in how it gets done. For example, while frequent communication is a top ranked item for effective business development, 46 percent of women versus 28 percent of men feel that frequent communication was one of the most important ingredients. Tactics for building and maintaining books of business varied. More men than women wanted in-person interaction, while more women citing social media is a useful tool.
  • For high-performing lawyers, assessing your needs to maintain word demands and outside-of-work commitments coming out of the pandemic along consistent proactive communication to supervisors and career stakeholders are equally important. Your employer cannot support you in the best manner if your requirements are not known.




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