In mid-June, as we all started thinking that the pandemic was winding down, I stepped into my role as president of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) of Chicago. IWF is an international network of women leaders from across sectors that includes CEOs, entrepreneurs, artists, academics, film stars, and even prime ministers and presidents. It is a group of women who work to advance women’s leadership and equality worldwide.
I was humbled to be stepping into this role and excited to lead through a year of recovery and celebration over our collective defeat of COVID-19. I looked forward to bringing lessons of leadership and agility from my law firm and the legal profession more broadly to my new position. Instead, I am monitoring changing regulations and commiserating with women across the globe as COVID numbers rise.
The last nearly 18 months have been challenging for nearly everyone, but women have been the hardest hit in terms of job loss and familial pressure. Burnout is rampant. Women are stepping back or dropping out. This is especially true in the legal profession. Our trade has historically required long hours and tremendous commitment. Throughout the pandemic, many women attorneys struggled to maintain work hours while also monitoring remote schooling for their children, caring for parents, and counseling friends, family members, clients, and employees.
Women attorneys were the primary carriers of the emotional load of the pandemic, stressing about the safety of their loved ones, the education of their children, and the uncertainties of their clients. And, just when we thought it was safe to breathe and put down that load, COVID rates are surging again. Something has to give.
The legal profession has failed to adapt to a new world
The legal profession has too often rewarded long hours over results, complexity over efficiency, and billing over service or strategy. With all the advancements in technology and systems, the profession still clings to archaic mores. The pandemic has highlighted a truth that has been ignored for too long: this profession has failed to adapt to the changing world around us. Too many women feel forced to drop out because the profession continues to say, “We have to do it this way because that’s how we’ve always done it.” That has been the death anthem of so many businesses of the past, and yet it continues to be the battle cry of so many law firms. If there was ever a time for change in the profession, it is now.
It is impossible to do your best work when you are exhausted. It is impossible to be your best self when you are unhealthy. It is impossible to be truly present, to lead with certainty, to live your best life, when you are constantly rushing against the clock. These are simple, obvious truths. Still, busyness is idolized in the legal profession. Everyone laments the system—judges, lawyers, and paralegals alike. We all complain about the hours, the gamesmanship, and the stress. And yet we are complicit.
As the founder and managing partner of a boutique, multi-million-dollar firm, I know I am guilty of perpetuating this cycle. I started my firm before I had children and spent 12-to-16-hour days split between doing the work and building the relationships necessary to keep a full pipeline. I bought into the narrative that the hours were necessary because it worked. I scheduled meetings at 7 a.m., lunch time, and after work. I finished my legal work in between meetings and late into the night. I became active in bar associations and business organizations.
Four years after launching the firm, I had my first daughter, and just over two years later I had my second. I kept up the hours. My sleep suffered. My health suffered. My personal relationships suffered. My team at work suffered. I am committed to exploring ways to correct my mistakes. And we need both men and women to make that happen.
The glorification of overtired work must end
Working ever more hours, and doing so on little sleep, seems to be highly prized in the legal profession, even though we all know it’s fundamentally bad for us. Our profession needs to reorder its priorities so that healthy lifestyles and tenacious legal work can mutually support one another. Adequate sleep, regular exercise, and extended breaks are simple but meaningful steps that can help us course-correct.
Even as I write this, I continue to spread myself thin, but certain habits have helped me to maintain a degree of balance. To give my family, my clients, and my team the best I have to offer requires boundaries. I have made a point to carve out necessary time for sleep, which I have learned is a necessity, not a luxury. As a member of the board of the National Sleep Foundation, I know the research on sleep is irrefutable. After a good night’s rest, we are all more alert, have greater cognitive reactions, and able to deliver better physical and mental performance in nearly every activity. Exercise is equally as important. I make time early in the morning every day to focus on my body before I spend the rest of the day exercising my mind.
When we see colleagues on the cusp of burnout, we should give them permission to step back and take a break. Although I have struggled to do so in past years, I recently took a vacation. A true vacation. Such an extended break from our regular work schedules is the best way to activate creativity and truly conscious thinking. I returned to my office feeling rejuvenated and ready to dive back into client matters and office management. Law firms need to build in the ability to walk away for a discrete amount of time to re-energize. Working around the clock without sufficient breaks will lead to burnout and, eventually, turnover. Incentivizing proper breaks, however, will help individuals and firms succeed.
It is not solely the responsibility of women to lead with solutions
Lawyers are problem-solvers. We can solve our profession’s problem with balance and by recognizing the fact that it most negatively affects women attorneys. But we must not place the burden of finding solutions solely on the shoulders of women, as if they alone are responsible for creating a new legal work culture. Everyone is implicated and we all have a responsibility to move our profession forward in a healthy way.
In my involvement in women’s leadership over the years, I have sometimes seen that women expect themselves to engineer all the change that is needed to equalize the playing field. And—if they are thinking of such issues at all—men almost always share this expectation. But that mustn’t be the case. It is imperative that we craft a better legal profession so that women are not shut out and don’t have to choose between career and family. In the end, a reimagined and healthier profession will be better for everyone.
I cannot claim to have all the necessary solutions, but the prognosis is clear: all actors in the legal system need to support a more balanced profession, one that supports women’s career goals and enables them to wear other hats as well. It will not be simple and it will not be easy. But women’s empowerment and leadership does not exist in a silo. It is up to men to proactively make the changes that our field needs if it is to remain vibrant and attractive to future generations.
Last year was hard, but it made very clear what we should all have known all along: we cannot keep doing things the same way we have in the past. Clients have been seeking efficiencies for years, but firms are slow adopters. We cannot expect the industry to produce necessary boundaries. We have to be the ones to create them.
Let’s stop complaining about the profession and start taking real steps to change the way we engage with the industry. The work is not just for women, but it can certainly start with us.