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Understanding the Pandemic’s Effect on Underrepresented In-House Lawyers

Productivity, wellbeing, and career advancement topped law department challenges among diverse groups
Natalie Runyon

The pandemic’s disruption, which forced our reliance on remote work, removed any remaining perception of work-life separation. Underrepresented lawyers, who have always had high levels of availability to provide client service, found their last bastion breached. In the 1990s and 2000s, technology enabled 24/7 access, but the pandemic and reliance on remote work made any remaining imagined boundaries between work and home defunct.  

No longer can an attorney “leave” the office as a signifier that the workday has come to an end when home and office are the same. The incremental creep and temptation to disregard work-life boundaries reached a crescendo during the pandemic.

In February 2021, the Association of Corporate Counsel Foundation, the Thomson Reuters Institute, and the Association for Law Firm Diversity Professionals surveyed over 400 lawyers for underrepresented backgrounds from a race, gender, and ethnicity perspective asking them about the impact of the pandemic on their careers.  

Many underrepresented lawyers working as in-house counsel experienced increased work hours and additional responsibilities without pay during the pandemic; 38% reported negative impacts on their productivity.  

The same is true for personal wellbeing. Director of ACC Foundation Jen Chen shared, “Wellness has, and always will be, a big challenge for lawyers. Before the pandemic struck, ACC was providing resources and programming on wellness topics. We quickly increased the variety of resources available during the pandemic to help our members cope personally, as well as effectively manage their teams through the additional stressors experienced in such a short amount of time.”

Our research indicated that 65% of underrepresented corporate lawyers reported a negative impact on wellbeing because of the pandemic — causing extra stress and less time to invest in self-care were 67% and 52%, respectively. Chen elaborates, “In-house counsel have historically been asked to do more with less, especially when compared to the human resources of firms on average. It’s no wonder that, under these extraordinary circumstances, wellbeing, self-care, and mentorship — which were difficult to find time for normally — were impacted during the pandemic.”

In the survey, we also asked lawyers about the impact of the pandemic — and other seismic events of 2020 — on their career. Many attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds reported that racial injustice, increases in anti-Asian violence, and structural elements around caregiving had negative implications in their ability to develop and progress in their careers.  

These extra stressors also had adversely affected their wellbeing, making efforts by employers to increase support for wellbeing and diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives more critical for their productivity and performance.

Inclusion at work and its impact on wellbeing

Improvements in inclusion for in-house lawyers relative to their law firm peers. When it came to feelings of inclusion, in-house counsel lawyers reported a more positive impact compared to their law firm peers.

Monica Johnson, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Darigold and ACC Foundation Board Member, noted, “By design or not, actions taken by companies to ensure that engagement and communication continued during the pandemic likely helped improve overall inclusion on teams as well. Entire departments transitioning to virtual meetings, where everyone has an opportunity to speak and share, may have helped increase feelings of inclusion among team members.”

Mixed results on concerns of the pandemic hurting career progression. Around 40% of lawyers indicated their employers were interested in their learning, development, and career progress, respectively. Factors impeding the advancement of underrepresented groups at in-house employers included a lack of access to external networking and professional development opportunities — essential components for career progress.

In terms of corporate commitments of legal departments, in-house attorneys from underrepresented backgrounds reported inconsistency between what the organization says and what it does as a key concern for advancement.

Surprisingly, for a sizeable minority of in-house lawyers, the negative impact on their wellbeing did not translate to a negative impact on their career progression. In fact, 43% of corporate lawyers stated nothing outside of COVID-19 has affected their development and progression in the workplace in the last 12 months, versus 32% of those in law firms.

In-house efforts to address structural barriers. An area of opportunity for the leadership of corporate legal departments is to focus on structural barriers, or bias, which are those challenges faced by underrepresented lawyers that one person as an individual cannot change by themselves.

Examples of structural barriers frequently cited by in-house lawyers include a lack of access to key business leaders for sponsorship and not having transparency in how to influence outcomes for stretch assignments, such as cross-functional committees, which are usually necessary for highly coveted visibility.  

Current D&I initiatives don’t address structural barriers to progress

Many legal employers had invested in D&I initiatives before the pandemic. According to our research, those working in companies reported that the top two initiatives in place before the pandemic were manager reviews and leaders embracing diversity initiatives and goals.

At the same time, these measures alone would not do much to change the status quo environments at companies. One of the participants in the survey put it this way, “There are few women of color and working mothers in leadership roles in the legal department. The business organization that I provide legal support to has a somewhat ‘old boy’ culture made up of mostly white men.”

In addition to the stress brought about by the pandemic, underrepresented lawyers still had to worry about bias when receiving assessment for a promotion — or worse, attempting to find employment at a new firm.

Hiring and promotion of underrepresented lawyers

A few years ago, the ABA published research conducted by MCCA called You Can’t Change What You Can’t See that outlined ways for in-house legal departments to disrupt bias, which is the root cause for many structural barriers that many underrepresented lawyers face. Likewise, you can’t report progress on change when you don’t measure the current state.

Therefore, an important first step is to analyze the current state of your representation for each title in the organization and then implement bias disrupters for hiring, performance evaluation, and promotion. The following are some examples of how to reduce bias when hiring and assessing career advancement of underrepresented employees.

Hiring mechanisms

  • Include a diverse slate of candidates for new roles, such as the Mansfield Rule.
  • Establish a diverse representation of interviewers — only 2% of in-house lawyers reported the use of gender-inclusive teams to assess new candidates.  
  • Implement standard interview questions and have a secondary review of interview assessments by someone who is trained to identify bias.

Performance assessment and promotion methods

  • Appoint someone to identify bias during performance calibration discussion. In our research, only 2% of in-house lawyers with diversity-lead responsibilities indicated that trained observers were present to identify bias in performance conversations.
  • Arrange equal access to mentors for career growth.
  • Ensure equity in who is identified as high potential and offered stretch opportunities.

The pandemic — and 2020 in general — was difficult for everyone. But, armed with this survey information, employers are armed with vital information on how to support their employees from underrepresented communities. More importantly, legal employers and their leadership know more specifically where they need to make additional investments in diversity and inclusion.

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