Third of women in law see drop in income during pandemic



Dana Denis-Smith

Sixty-six per cent of women in the legal profession in the UK say the coronavirus crisis is having an impact on their mental health, with over a third experiencing a drop in income and 67 per cent reporting that the organisation they work for has furloughed staff.

The drop in income did not appear to result in a drop in working hours – only six per cent of employers had reduced respondents’ formal working hours with just three per cent requesting reduced hours themselves.

The survey exploring the experiences of women in the legal profession during the pandemic was conducted by the Next 100 Years in early May.

Ninety-one per cent of women questioned are working from home, 11 per cent have had confirmed or suspected COVID-19 and 17 per cent have had a family member with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. Twenty per cent had volunteered or acted pro bono during the crisis.

Seventy-seven per cent felt that their firm or chambers were handling the crisis well and the majority were optimistic about the future of their firm or chambers, with 70 per cent expecting their businesses to bounce back once the crisis is over.

For those with young children, the pressures of lockdown were particularly acute: 91 per cent were taking on extra childcare and home-schooling responsibilities with 32 per cent forced to reduce their working hours to do so. Forty-nine per cent said that they were taking on more childcare responsibilities than their partner and 73 per cent were finding the situation hard to juggle.

One law firm partner said: “All staff apart from partners have been furloughed, so I am working at home around the clock whilst having to juggle a four-year-old and an ill husband. It is exhausting and at the same time I am dealing with the reality that the firm just may not survive this.”

“It is particularly hard for women with young children in the firm, some of whom were the first to be furloughed,” said one solicitor, “The pay cuts have had a bigger impact on junior staff members, the majority of which are female.”

“Our firm has seen 80 per cent of the staff furloughed,” said another solicitor, “The only two kept at my office were the mother of a five-year-old trying to home school and myself, currently pregnant. The strain on both our mental health has been outrageous.”

Women without children felt that they were expected to pick up extra work to cover for colleagues with young families and those starting out in their careers were fearful of the impact the crisis was going to have on their future prospects. Others were feeling isolated and struggling with bereavements.

One barrister said: “As a young, healthy woman with no children I am one of the few people in chambers able to continue going to court throughout this time. The pressure is immense. It felt like I became responsible for bringing new work into chambers overnight, and that I didn’t have a good reason for not accepting work. I’m exhausted.”

Sixty-five per cent of women were concerned that the lockdown was exaggerating existing inequalities between men and women with just over half voicing concerns that diversity initiatives will fall by the wayside as financial pressures grow post-crisis.

There were examples of those on maternity leave who felt their jobs were particularly vulnerable and others who felt their future prospects may be impacted if they were seen not to have managed well whilst juggling family and work during this period.

An In-house lawyer said: “I am the only female solicitor in a team of five. The other solicitors’ partners manage the home schooling for their children but I have only been able to manage my workload by working early morning and late evening. I don’t want to stand out as having performed more poorly than my male colleagues if there are redundancies later but I don’t know how long I can keep it up. I am completely exhausted and there is no end in sight.”

There was an overwhelming expectation that there would be an increased acceptance of requests for home working or flexible working after the crisis is over with 83 per cent anticipating a change in the profession.

Dana Denis-Smith, founder of The Next 100 Years and CEO of Obelisk Support, commented: “The survey shows that women in the legal profession are being hit hard by this crisis. Many are attempting to do the impossible and there is a reluctance to admit they are not super women.

“As we see schools and childcare settings partially opening up and the government allowing people to go back to work, I hope that legal businesses continue to accommodate the difficult situation that working parents will continue to find themselves in and are mindful of the tough time experienced by so many women in past months. As financial pressures grow it would be disastrous if some of the hard-won progress on diversity we have seen in recent years is lost.

“These life changing events will affect the legal profession for years to come and I hope that we learn the right lessons. Women in law are optimistic about the potential for increased flexible working, a change that would make a real difference to women’s progress. Whilst the current working from home situation is less than ideal, it does show how easily it can be done if firms are willing to embrace it.”