Is there potential for a mass exodus of women from the legal profession? Multiple studies have shown that the pandemic was harder on women, with increased home responsibilities falling disproportionately upon them and often leading to a continued need to work remotely, even after their law firms reopened. These shifts have had major impacts on gender parity in workplaces. Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway welcome Roberta Tepper to discuss these issues of inequality and what law firms should do to support women in the profession.
Roberta Tepper is the Chief Member Services Officer at the State Bar of Arizona.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Alert Communications, Blackletter Podcast, Scorpion, and Smokeball.
Intro: Before we get started, we’d like to thank our sponsors Alert Communications, the Blackletter Podcast, Scorpion, and Smokeball.
Male: Welcome to the Digital Edge, with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway, your hosts, both legal technologists, authors and lecturers, invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You’re listening to Legal Talk network.
Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome to the 169th edition of the Digital Edge Lawyers and Technology. We’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson, President of Sensei Enterprises and information technology, cyber security and digital forensics firm in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jim Calloway: And I’m Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. Today, our topic is what do women lawyers really want from their law firms? Our Guest today is Roberta Tepper, the Chief Member Services Officer at the State Bar of Arizona. Roberta is a former President of the Arizona Women Lawyers Association Board of Directors and also served as President of the Maricopa Chapter of AWLA. Roberta is active in the ABA law practice division and serves on the law practice magazine board of editors on the law practice commission council and also was recently chair of ABA Tech Show. Thanks for joining us today, Roberta.
Roberta Tepper: Thank you, it’s lovely to be here.
Sharon D. Nelson: It’s good to have you back, and let’s talk about women lawyers before the pandemic. Back then, life was just a bed of roses for women lawyers, right?
Roberta Tepper: Well, I would love it if I could say, “yes, that was true.” But we all know that that was not exactly true. The challenges that had plagued women lawyers for years, decades, we had the problem with work life balance. Those dreaded words bucking what we will still call the “old boy networks” or mentality and then the pandemic it and everybody sort of took a pause but the same problems were there. I think women have always had an uphill battle in the practice of law. Not an insurmountable one, but certainly always an uphill battle.
Jim Calloway: Roberta, why do you think the headline of so many articles said that the pandemic was much harder on women? We even saw such article specific to women lawyers.
Roberta Tepper: Well, you know, I think the press had it, right. The pandemic was, or at least it seemed to be much harder on women, notwithstanding the fact that over the past few decades, men — of course, I mean, there are households that are not men and women. But you know, men, husbands, fathers had taken a bigger role in parenting duties but by and large, women are still the primary caretakers. So, when the pandemic hit and kids came home from school and kids came home from daycare, there was no place to be other than home. Women were working remotely, but they were working remotely during the day. Maybe they had helped, maybe they didn’t, then they were — also the school teachers, the daycare workers and doing all the other household things that women tend to do in terms of the traditional or even non-traditional households. So, you know, you had school-age kids running around the house needing attention, you had the work to be done, then add to that the addition of caring for ill family members, for elderly family members, parents or relatives, who had to come home from some kind of assisted living or needed assistance. All of that seemed to fall on women and for women lawyers trying to keep their business going in the most challenging of times, it was the perfect storm.
Sharon D. Nelson: I read one study Roberta that concluded that the pandemic was unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity. Do you agree with that statement?
Roberta Tepper: You know sadly, I do. I think it has been an uphill battle for women to start behind the start line for all these years to show that they could be there and be as present and be as engaged in the law practice, to lean in and to make the practice of law their primary focus and this is still true and I think the pandemic made it harder because of all the challenges that women have experienced. Particularly, and I know we’ll talk about this in a little while, but particularly women of color, but for all women in general, not just women, lawyers, women are Leaving law firms in concerning numbers and of course when women leave, diversity suffers.
So yeah, we’ve been trying to move, let’s put it that way in the right direction of women taking greater leadership roles in law firms of women advancing to partner in law firms. It seems that the pandemic really got that movement on the skids, it really started to backslide.
Jim Calloway: Well, I’ve seen a couple of interesting reports about the lack of gender, parity and law firms. A longstanding problem with many law firms. Tell us about those reports.
Roberta Tepper: So, there were two reports that really resonated with me and I will thank Sharon for bringing them to my attention, really. Because we had been taking about them. The Arizona women lawyers and in other national groups, but it was sort of nice to see that our reflections were echoed in an actual study.
So, the ABA Commission on women in the profession supported two reports, one called ‘Walking out the Door’ about women in private practice and the other one called ‘Left out and Left Behind’ about women of color in law firms. The findings were not surprising, but really sad given that you would hope that we had made progress in the last — I don’t know, 50 or 60 years on that, so you know, some of the things that resonated with me in those reports were that consistently between 45 and 50% of lawyers entering the profession year after year have been woman and yet, only about 20% of law firm equity partners are women.
The pandemic actually made that worse, it seems like in the last few years that percentage of women partners and women managing partners has actually decreased. Rather than increased. And so, those two studies really showed that although there has been a lot of — I won’t say it’s lip service per se but I will say maybe facial statements about dedication to diversity and advancing women that really not much has changed. As bad as it has been for women lawyers in general, women lawyers of color have actually suffered worse.
One of the things that really got me when I was reading through the first report, because it happened to me and it happened to me in the 90s when I was a prosecutor and it’s happened to me more recently in my work at the bar is that women lawyers are really unconscionably — more likely to be mistaken for a lower-level employee. While having a lawyer walk up to you and ask if you are the paralegal or if you are the secretary, it happens to women far mor as you might think than it happens to male lawyers. There’s just this persistent perception — sorry for the alliteration — what women have experienced for a long time, demeaning comments, having less access to business development, being overlooked for promotion, being denied salary increases or bonus. As I said before, start from behind the starting line situation. So, those two reports were confirming in a way to the conversations that women lawyers have been having but really depressing in the sense that we’ve been working on this issue for a long time and the pandemic seems to have really made that struggle even more intense.
Jim Calloway: Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome back to the Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is, what do women lawyers really want from their law firms? Our guest is Roberta Tepper, the Chief Member Services officer at the State Bar of Arizona.
Roberta is a former President of the Arizona Women Lawyers Association Board of Directors and also served as President of the Maricopa Chapter of AWLA. She is active in the ABA law practice division and serves on the Law Practice Magazine Board of Editors and on the Law Practice Division Council. Roberta as everyone started to return back to work, what were the special challenges do you think for women lawyers?
Roberta Tepper: The challenges were consistent with lots of regular challenges pre-pandemic, but intensified. So, women lawyers were starting to go back into the office but their children were not returning to school. Daycares were not open, or the school was open for a week and then closed for a week because there was an outbreak of COVID. Same thing with daycare, I could tell you that even in our offices, not only women lawyers but female employees would have to leave mid-day because the daycare was now closed and little Bobby had to come home.
So, there was that unpredictability of the day-to-day, it’s “easier,” not “easy” but easier to have some kind of balance or schedule when you know as a fact that people will — you know your children will be taken care of. They will be at school for certain hours but there’s that unpredictability. And then coming back to the office, although, I’ve read hundreds of articles about the hybrid workspace and employers embracing remote work. There was a significant number of firms that really wanted to go back to the old normal instead of the next normal.
So, while they were making available hybrid work environment, and that has been important for recruitment and retention but women lawyers had more trouble going back into the office because they had all of these other significant polls that made remote working more attractive to them.
Jim Calloway: Roberta, I have to say, I had to learn a new term to get ready for this podcast, “Proximity bias.” Can you describe what that is and do you believe law firms, especially larger ones suffer from it?
Roberta Tepper: Well, I’ll tell you, it was a new term for me too and yet again, I will thank Sharon for introducing me to the really excellent encapsulation of what’s been going on. So, I hadn’t really thought about it in that way, that it was a new bias as opposed to just sort of one of the hurdles. But the underlying basis is that people know — like an advance, other people who they have closer proximity with. And if you are a woman and you are working remotely because of all of the factors we’ve been talking about, then it’s a negative bias against you that you’re not there. So, while there’s been a willingness to be flexible on the part of law firms with hybrid work or remote work. Those who are present in the office have been more likely to be promoted or are seen as more valuable than those who have been working remotely.
That’s true even with Zoom or teams or any of the electronic ways of being together. If you are present in the same place, you’re seen as being part of the crowd. It’s sort of like that “We include everybody, we’re open to all levels of engagement,” but somehow when the lunch invitation comes, it’s the folks who you always had lunch with and women are frequently excluded. So that inability to be in the office full-time or as much as their male counterparts is actually working against women.
Sharon D. Nelson: Yeah, I think they know that too and there’s been a lot of concern expressed that there will be an exodus of women from the legal profession. Do you share that concern, Roberta?
Roberta Tepper: I do. We’ve all been talking about the great resignation in the wake of COVID and it is certainly present for women lawyers who having had another way to work and another way to spend their day now see that there is another possibility. It’s sort of in the pre-COVID olden days. We would see women opening their own practices because it gave them flexibility. But now, they’re actually like most other people just revisiting what they decide to do with their life and their profession and I am concerned that women will increasingly leave and find alternatives to the practice of law.
You know, I’m concerned both as a woman lawyer and also as an employer that we will lack that kind of diversity that has added so much value that, we’ve been working to increase and now I’m concerned that we will see that decrease.
Jim Calloway: Well, to refer back to the title of our podcast, Roberta, what are the types of things that you think women lawyers are looking for in their law firms?
Roberta Tepper: Yeah, you know, COVID hasn’t changed that that much. I think women have been looking for these things for a long time and their law firms. But certainly, in this re-examination of what women lawyers do and look for going forward, it’s more intense. So, women lawyers want — most lawyers want, they want a path to advancement. They want appropriate compensation. It is still true that women tend to make less than men. They want a better — I hate this term, but I’m going to say it “Work life balance.” They want some flexibility, they want perhaps in big law, lower required billable hours or freedom to take personal time off. They’ve been looking for effective mentoring for a while and that certainly is still persistent. Women want the opportunity to grow professionally and true after COVID, they want the ability to work remotely without negative repercussions. They don’t want to be penalized as, “oh, the woman lawyer, who has to work from home” as opposed to “the lawyer” who chooses to work from home.
I think there’s that negative connotation of a woman lawyer is just choosing to work from home because of they are women. And in fact, many male lawyers are now choosing to work from home or prefer to do that but they’re still that slant on it. So, I think women are — lawyers are just looking forward to a fair break and it’s been many years of trying to get that compounded by all of the difficulties of COVID that make it just a more intense struggle I think now.
Jim Calloway: Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome back to the Digital Edge, on the Legal Talk network. Today, our subject is what do women lawyers really want from their law firms? Our guest today is Roberta Tepper, the chief member services officer at the State Bar of Arizona. Roberta, how well do you think law firms are responding to the needs of women lawyers the you’ve kind of given us a list. How are the law firms doing?
Roberta Tepper: You know, I think like all cultural changes, it’s slow going. I think it’s interesting from those two reports, law firms and law firm leaders who tend to be disproportionately male think they are doing much better than women lawyers think they are doing. That came through loud and clear in those two reports. I’ve been intrigued by the fact that some younger women lawyers don’t see the issues exactly the same way as women lawyers of my age who have been in the practice for, let’s say close to 30 years or more see the issue. But they see it as it impacts them so they may not see the problem in their first couple of years but then if they decide to start a family, they see this issue.
So, it is generational in terms of perception, I wouldn’t say all women lawyers see it the same way, but it is clear to me that there are law firms who think because they have a policy enunciated that they support the advancement of women lawyers or they support diversity; that they are actually doing that. And in fact, in practical reality, they’re not succeeding. And so, you know that is compounded with — and I will say it’s not just all male lawyers, not advancing female lawyers. We’ve seen in at least in Arizona, is that there is what I’ll call an earlier generation of women lawyers who have succeeded, who have moved up the food chain, but do not always prioritize sending that ladder down to help younger or newer female lawyers to advance.
And that’s been a little troubling as well, so I think having it in a report may help. I think one of the really valuable things in the walking out the door report was that it concluded with some really concrete ideas of how law firms can not only create the policy but give it muscle, don’t just have the bones but let’s look at the metrics, let’s look at what’s happening. Let’s survey our members to see if the male managing partner’s perception or the management committees’ perception of how this is working, is really how it’s working in reality. So, I think that for the most part, law firms are trying but they are too easily satisfied that They’ve made progress when they actually haven’t.
Sharon D. Nelson: I agree 100%.
Jim Calloway: Final question Roberta. What are your predictions for the future of women lawyers?
Roberta Tepper: Well, I am very pro the future of women lawyers. I know that’s not a surprise to either one of you. I never bet against, just the tenacity and persistence of women lawyers and women in general but specifically, women lawyers. I think that there are still challenges that disproportionately and unfairly impact women but I also think that women lawyers have the grit and determination to make it if they don’t get worn-down first.
I mean, I think that’s a big “if” I would hate to think that after years of pushing and grinding away that they’ve just run out of energy, I know that you two are aware of The Grit Project which was a product of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. That program and project is still useful, it came out several years ago. I know we’ve done it several times through Arizona Women Lawyers, and through the State Bar of Arizona to help women work through some of these issues.
So, I think there’s help out there, I think there are people focusing attention on that. So, I think women lawyers have to take a note from Exodus and I will be all biblical for a second. But you know, there there’s a reason when the Israelites were freed from slavery, they had to wander around in the desert until the old generation died and the new generation raised in Freedom was able to assert themselves. And I think that’s going to be similar for women lawyers, as the folks who give lip service to the advancement of women fade out of the profession, I’m not wishing them death. But they fade out of the profession and the newer more open-minded, hopefully people take charge maybe those 20% of women get a louder vote or a louder voice. I think that change is possible, but I do think sadly after — I don’t know 60 years, it’s still pretty much an uphill battle. So, I am optimistic but not dewy-eyed about it.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, we thank you for the analogy.
Roberta Tepper: I had to wax poetic just for a second. That’s one, I never thought about but it’s actually a decent analogy. Thank you so much for joining us today, Roberta. Jim and I love talking with you, we always have fun and of course, we always leave our listeners with lots to learn from you and that’s all so wonderful. So, we really appreciate your being with us today.
Roberta Tepper: Thank you so much for having me. You know, that talking to you and Jim is one of the highlights of my day whenever it happens.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, thank you. And that does it for this edition of the Digital Edge Lawyers and Technology. And remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at legaltalknetwork.com or on Apple Podcasts. And if you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us in Apple Podcasts.
Jim Calloway: Thanks for joining us. Goodbye. Ms. Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: Happy trills, cowboy.
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