Covid-19 hinders career development for lawyers from minority backgrounds, ACCF study finds

Lack of in-person contact, heavy workloads and caregiving duties weigh on career progress

Lawyers from underrepresented communities have seen their career progression harder hit by the coronavirus pandemic than their peers from other groups, according to a new global study from the Association of Corporate Counsel Foundation.

The report – Pandemic Nation: Understanding Its Impact on Lawyers from Underrepresented Communities – which was also co-produced by the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals (ALFDP) and the Thomson Reuters Institute, found that in the UK, 44% of lawyers of colour currently find personal development and progression at work challenging. Respondents said a lack of in-person contact, a heavy workload and caregiver responsibilities were the main reasons why Covid-19 had hindered career development.

Lia Dorsey, president of the AFLDP and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Ogletree Deakins, said: “Our goal is to make the industry a more diverse, inclusive and accepting place that is representative of the society it serves; and the critical insights revealed in this survey help us inch closer to that goal by gaining an unvarnished assessment of the work that is ongoing and the work that still needs to be done.”

The pandemic has also had other impacts on lawyers. Some 70% of women lawyers said the pandemic has had a negative impact on their well-being compared to 54% of men. Other issues include stress levels at work, poor work-life balance and a lack of time spent on self-care activities. In addition, a significant number of UK respondents said they had taken on increased work hours and more responsibilities without additional pay during the pandemic.

The survey also showed that a greater number of women lawyers and lawyers of colour expressed concern that there is often inconsistency between what firms say they are doing to improve diversity and inclusion, and what they actually do – something that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Respondents said the most effective ways for firms to address the structural barriers to greater diversity is by providing formal sponsorship programmes and setting a 30% target for diverse candidates to fill job openings and for representation on key committees.

Jennifer Chen, director of the ACC Foundation, said: “Knowing how and if solutions to these barriers are working is critical to increasing retention and advancement of these professionals in these underrepresented communities within the legal industry.”

Some 400 lawyers across North America, Europe and Asia responded to the survey, which was distributed via around 30 partner organisations, individual firms, bar associations and other legal groups. Participating UK organisations included General Counsel for Diversity & Inclusion and Lawyers in Local Government. Most respondents were in the US and the UK.

A study by Thomson Reuters published in November that measured the effectiveness of common diversity initiatives warned against programmes supporting the ‘erroneous perception that female lawyers are fundamentally different than male lawyers and therefore require special treatment’. It warned that the setting up of women-only networks and reverse mentoring programmes risked unwittingly undermining gender diversity. 

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