By Jessica Mach for Law.com
Even though companies are desperate for legal talent, many are overlooking a potent strategy: reaching out to the large pool of female lawyers who left the industry to take care of children or family members, some attorneys say.
Many of these lawyers want to go back to work but fear their resume gaps will make them less desirable job candidates. Some believe the legal industry can’t accommodate working mothers and caretakers by design.
“I had several times thought about trying to return to the law and just thinking I wouldn’t get a fair shake at it,” said Christine Foo, who left her 15-year Big Law career in 2017 in part to take care of her parents.
Now associate general counsel and head of patent analytics at Meta (formerly Facebook), Foo recalled her line of thinking at the time she began to consider returning to work. “Putting my resume up against somebody else’s—why would anybody pick me?”
Recognizing these challenges, a handful of programs have cropped up in recent years with the aim of helping female lawyers reenter the legal workforce. As companies and law firms struggle to retain and hire lawyers, however, and parents and other caretakers continue to leave law jobs, such programs could become an important resource for the labor-strapped legal industry.
In the U.S., the percentage of women who participate in the workforce has always been much lower than the percentage of men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This trend held true during at least the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when women left the workforce in higher numbers than men. Between February 2020 and January 2022, women have also been returning to work in lower numbers, according to a recent analysis of BLS data by the National Women’s Law Center.
“We saw women’s workforce participation declining in really drastic numbers” during the pandemic, said Jessica Stender, policy director and deputy legal director at Equal Rights Advocate. “One of the primary reasons really was because women are still predominantly the caretakers in a family, meaning that it’s still the case that more women are more often the ones to take time off work to provide care to children or to a sick family member.”
Many women reported leaving their jobs altogether to provide care for children when schools and day care facilities shuttered, Stender said. She added that women of color, who disproportionately work low-wage jobs that can’t be done remotely, and often fail to accommodate flexible work schedules, often have an even harder time juggling both work and caregiving duties.
Many of these challenges existed before the pandemic; the pandemic only exacerbated their impact on working women. For female lawyers, industry norms such as long hours and intense workloads made many feel they had to choose between their careers and their caregiving obligations long before the arrival of COVID-19.
Mulling a Return
Inger Meyer, lead counsel for intellectual property licensing and open source at Meta, found herself at this crossroads around 2011. She ended up leaving the workforce for eight years to spend more time with her children. When Meyer decided a few years ago to return to work, she toyed with the idea of leaving the legal industry altogether because working in law no longer seemed feasible.
“I didn’t think there was a way to make it work—to have a family life and work/life balance—from what I had seen working as a lawyer in the past,” Meyer said. Like Foo, Meyer said her yearslong absence from the workforce made her doubt her capabilities, and stopped her from pursuing jobs she was technically qualified for.
In 2019, however, Foo and Meyer were both recruited for a program at Meta that seemed specifically tailored to meet their concerns. The Meta Reconnect Program placed the attorneys in 12-month positions on the tech giant’s legal team, alongside a small cohort of two other lawyers who had been out of the workforce for at least two years.
Launched in collaboration with digital talent marketplace The Mom Project, the program pairs participants with mentors and aims to help them refresh their legal skills so they can transition back to full-time work. Meta ended up hiring both Foo and Meyer for permanent positions after the program. The program will be accepting 10 to 11 attorneys for its next cohort, Meyer said.
“We had taken a pause,” Meyer explained. “Knowing that that was all out in the open made me feel a lot more comfortable.
“Fears that I had fairly quickly went away once I started working because I realized I did have skills, and they came back a lot more quickly than I thought,” she added.
The program made a conscious effort to have multiple lawyers start together, Foo said. “That was really important, having a safe space to ask questions in addition to your manager—this other cohort of people going through the very same kind of experience,” she said.
The Meta program is not the first of its kind. In 2014, Diversity Lab, a San Francisco-based incubator, launched a fellowship program for lawyers returning to the industry after a career hiatus.
Like the Meta program, the OnRamp Fellowship places participants in legal departments or law firms for a year and provides mentoring services with the aim of helping them return to the industry full time. Companies and law firms that allow placements through the program include Amazon, Microsoft, Pfizer, Akerman, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath and more.
Rachel Bailey, a behavior expert who will be working with OnRamp to provide programming for lawyers who are parents, said that during the pandemic more companies began reaching out to her to run workshops on parenting for employees.
Before the pandemic, Bailey said, her clients were interested in “almost luxury-type topics—how do I increase my kid’s self-esteem? How do I motivate my kids to push themselves harder?” During the pandemic, clients became more interested in topics around survival, Bailey said.
Companies wanted to offer these workshops to help parents better cope with juggling child care and working from home, in the hopes of retaining them. But besides Diversity Lab, Bailey said companies haven’t been reaching out about opportunities to help parents transition back to work.
Helping parents and other caregivers transition back to the legal industry is only one piece of the puzzle. Keeping them there is a whole other challenge. Bailey noted, for example, that some children may have issues coping with a parent returning to work full time; providing support to working parents dealing with these types of issues could help with retention.
Stender said broader changes are critical. Remote or hybrid work arrangements, flexible schedules, and paid family leave are policies employers can put in place to help parents better balance work and caregiving obligations.
Stender also pointed to government policies that expressly give both men and women the right to paid family leave, as well as policies that prevent employers from discriminating against parents and caregivers by making parents and caregivers protected categories under civil rights law.
Alaska, Delaware, Minnesota and New York already have laws banning this type of discrimination; at least 190 local jurisdictions have similar bans. In California, Equal Rights Advocates is sponsoring similar legislation that would additionally provide workers with reasonable accommodations if they need to care for children during school or day care closures. If passed, the second part of the bill would be the first of its kind in the U.S.
“You read every day about companies [that] are not able to fill roles. You have a whole segment of the population [that] would be an incredible addition to the workforce,” Stender said. “We just need the structures and policies in place to allow them to do their jobs while also providing care for families.”