Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Amanda Norris Ames to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
As we pass the three-year anniversary of the pandemic, the legal industry is in a panic about “quit quitting,” the return to in-person networking, and the inevitable impact of AI on the profession. But while some firms are expressing a desire to return to “normal,” others recognize that many lawyers are thriving without the trappings of the “normal” law firm life of a few years ago.
For some, business development and mentorship might still mean post-work happy hour, but many lawyers have also come out of the pandemic building robust practices with little, if any, physical infrastructure or in-person networking. These attorneys are utilizing vast virtual networks and technology to develop real client relationships and manage successful teams — sometimes with individuals that they have never met in person.
This shift presents a significant leadership opportunity for post-pandemic lawyer parents. In fact, many lawyer parents and caregivers have spent the past three years building the skills that will permit us to embrace change and lead the innovative law firms of the next generation. While some leaders in the profession have conveyed a fear that this work-from-home environment permitted lawyers to “get off easy,” many of us who found ourselves in the position of working and parenting simultaneously during the pandemic know that we learned to develop new systems for generating quality work; to better communicate deadlines, expectations, and boundaries; to shift our networks to virtual platforms; to creatively coordinate schedules and priorities; and to approach our colleagues and clients as empathetic partners. Those adaptations served us and our families well in a time of necessity, yet they also permitted us to adapt with our clients and, at times, provide more cost-effective and innovative solutions.
The resilient systems parents and caregivers built in recent years were a survival mode, but as we shift to a new “normal,” firms should also see the potential of these lessons to impact future law firm leadership. The change presents opportunities for law firms to tap into an underutilized segment of the profession — lawyer parents — and develop diverse teams using approaches unheard of in the pre-2020 legal landscape. What’s more, many of these same changes that will permit parents to serve in leadership roles will also help firms implement the technology, efficiencies, and communications practices to weather future industry disruption.
And it’s not only virtual law firms that can tap into the potential of the new legal landscape to build more diverse leadership teams. As a Virginia-based, fully remote shareholder for a Maine-based law firm, and a practice group leader to a mostly remote team located across three time zones, I have seen the opportunity in traditional law firms willing to leverage technology and communication to build innovative practices. I have also seen how the adoption of these innovative practices has helped me grow as a leader — while also raising young children — and build a strong team in which many members are parents themselves.
Now, as I look back on years of constant disruption, I believe that post-pandemic parents have learned three lessons that can help us shape the law firms of the future:
- Efficient problem solving can replace long hours. Female parents have always been a small percentage of equity partners in law firms. This is due, in part, to the fact that many find the number of hours typically billed to achieve this status incompatible with family life. But as the legal profession reels at the notion that technology may someday eliminate routine legal tasks, it’s clear that most lawyers will need to adapt to focus on creative problem-solving rather than less efficient (and often more time-consuming) tasks. This shift could provide an alternate pathway to leadership, creating opportunities for those who can develop an area of expertise, solve unique problems, and communicate and relate with our clients, without spending as many late nights at the office. Moreover, while client demands (and corresponding career advancement for attorneys) used to require hopping on a plane for important meetings, our recent comfort level with virtual practice permits us to travel less and the client to save on costs. These are wins for parents and for the client’s bottom line.
- Communication and connection can replace physical proximity. Thanks to our new Zoom proficiency, our opportunities for personal connection are expanded, rather than limited. While building a practice over the course of the pandemic in the specialized field of higher education investigations, my team has been able to recruit talent from around the country to join us — and those lawyers have not been required to uproot their families to take on a new role. This has had the added benefit of helping us build a nationwide practice, as we use the same virtual methods to stay in touch as a team that we use to connect with our clients.
- Intentionality can replace facetime. Many large law firms have already found that the days of ever-present, in-office associates are gone following the pandemic. I believe that in-person connection can strengthen teams and relationships. But this connection must now be more deliberate, rather than found at the water cooler. Post-pandemic lawyer parents have learned to set boundaries by necessity, and we should carry these with us as we work to manage teams intentionally and empathetically. My team has learned that the virtual world requires more conscious use of our time and communications, and we are always working to find new avenues for meaningful mentorship and team collaboration. I believe that these ongoing efforts will be necessary to build and retain legal teams in the post-pandemic era, and many working parents will thrive in this more structured environment.
Lastly, with these new opportunities for leadership, lawyer parents must also raise the bar for all parents in the industry. The pandemic has only further hobbled our country’s already inadequate childcare system and exposed the need for a safety net for those who become ill or become unexpected caregivers. And while a structural solution — requiring support from all levels of government — is necessary to fix the problem, lawyer parents in leadership roles must simultaneously advocate for these programs within our own profession.
As we look back on the past three years, post-pandemic lawyer parents know that our legal practice has irreparably changed. But we can use lessons learned in a stressful and chaotic period to advance our careers and tomorrow’s legal industry.
Amanda Norris Ames is a higher education attorney and Title IX specialist and Co-Chair of Bernstein Shur’s Investigations & Resolutions Team. She regularly serves as a neutral and impartial Title IX investigator and hearing officer and assists campuses nationwide with all aspects of the Title IX process. Amanda uses her breadth of experience in this area to help colleges and universities navigate sensitive allegations of misconduct amid a rapidly changing legal and regulatory environment. Amanda’s thorough and impartial approach has earned her a national reputation for delivering effective solutions and implementing best practices.