The inequality of the COVID-19 lockdown

It’s a truism to say that COVID-19 is one of the biggest challenges that the legal sector has ever experienced both professionally and personally, with those two subsets of our lives more blurred than ever before. ‘Challenge’ means very different things to different people. To the lucky ones in continuing employment, it typically means trying to work within a drastically changed work environment. We are all trying to pretend that we’ve adapted seamlessly to the ‘new normal’. But I’d argue that what is required right now are honest and unembarrassed conversations about the fact that in the legal and legal tech profession primary carers – and that is typically women – are likely to be hardest hit unless we take steps to prevent that.

In an open letter to 100 general counsel this week, a group of female entrepreneurs led by Obelisk founder Dana Denis-Smith urged corporates to look at their supplier relationships and avoid the urge to turn to traditional suppliers that are seen as ‘less risky’.

The letter says: “A snap poll of female founders running legal services businesses carried out since the lockdown started shows that in the space of only a few weeks, 39% have seen sales drop considerably and for 21% funding is now even harder to come by. With the third most commonly reported pressure being the added strain of childcare (13%) falling disproportionately on women, the perfect storm is here.” You can read that letter in full below.

In our haste to praise ourselves for adapting quickly to remote working (meaning video conferences at all hours ranging from client meetings to social hangouts and quizzes) many are either overlooking or deliberately avoiding the blindingly obvious question. How the hell are people with dependents of any age – old or young – expected to be as productive as they were before the COVID-19 lockdown? As the days tick on the stress and weariness is palpable. It’s not going to last forever, and lockdowns are easing, some schools will begin to go back before the summer break. But a return to normal working conditions is realistically months away.

Right now, there is an understandable sense of gratitude among workers that they are healthy and have a job. An increasing number of law firms and legal tech vendors are furloughing or letting staff go in response to the COVID-19 shutdown and general unemployment is reaching unprecedented global highs. COVID-19 has given our employment expectations a new benchmark and it’s not pretty. One US female legal tech founder with two young children made the humbling point: “I don’t mind working hard, I’m just grateful to be busy.”

Many employees are still delivering the same output as before by working shifts and irregular hours – NetDocuments’ data shows that many lawyers are more productive than before lockdown. Aside from the fact that employees no longer have travel time and some are more productive away from office distractions, these stats could be a cause for concern in themself.

While I’m impressed by how many employers are showing genuine concern for their employees’ mental health, that also means having honest conversations about what they can realistically achieve given their home circumstances.

We are right to be grateful to have a job when so many are losing theirs. But if you haven’t already, now’s the time to address the elephant in the room and reset some boundaries.

1 May 2020

Open Letter to all General Counsel for Diversity and Inclusion

The coronavirus crisis is putting an unprecedented strain on almost all businesses as they contend with huge disruption, a remote workforce and a drop in demand for products and services on unprecedented scale. We have already heard that for small businesses the impact is particularly acute and whilst in most countries there is some government help available, many of these businesses do not qualify for it.

A snap poll of female founders running legal services businesses carried out since the lockdown started shows that in the space of only a few weeks, 39% have seen sales drop considerably and for 21% funding is now even harder to come by. With the third most commonly reported pressure being the added strain of childcare (13%) falling disproportionately on women, the perfect storm is here.

There is a real danger that coming out of the crisis, start-up ‘New Law’ businesses like these just won’t survive. In tough times, with budget cuts and extra scrutiny on spend, commitments to Diversity and Inclusion are all too easily forgotten and smaller, more innovative suppliers can be swept aside. There is a temptation for in-house counsel to turn to traditional suppliers that are perceived as less risky despite being shown to be less cost effective in the long run.

For those of you looking at your supplier relationships, we ask that you think about the long term. What will the market look like at the other side of this crisis? Our concern is that female entrepreneurs who were already facing poor odds due to the structural inequalities prevalent amongst the investment community (fewer than 1% of all female founder teams received investment between 2015-2019, or just 65 businesses in the legal sector) and lower access to corporate spend (less than 5% of corporate spend is with women-owned businesses), will struggle to survive and thrive. Unlike larger firms, most do not have the ability to access capital arrangements with banks that would help to see them through if their sales funnel dries up and they do not have investor backing to champion them or co-finance any support.

Unless collective action is taken, we will be left with a less diverse, less vibrant market and that will be to the detriment of everyone working in the legal profession. The opening-up of the market to a range of alternative providers over the past 10 years has been hard won and reversing this progress would be damaging.

This is a crisis that is taking its toll on all of us and we must all play our part in minimising its impact. On behalf of all women who have together contributed to an emerging ecosystem of alternative legal services companies, we ask that when reviewing budgets and making procurement decisions in the coming weeks and months, you consider the long-term benefits of maintaining greater competition, innovation and supplier diversity in the sector.

Essential actions for the GC community to take today:

1. Where you can, provide certainty for suppliers

2. Where you seek new solutions, make sure you reach out to women-owned businesses not only to your panel law firms

3. Keep lines of communication open and operate as close as possible to business as usual

4. Also think how you can encourage your law firm partners to do the same to safeguard the innovation we have seen emerging over the past decade.

Signatories to this letter:

Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk Support

Kerry Jack, Black Letter Communications

Samantha Woodham, The Divorce Surgery

Maaike Roet, House of Lawyers

Mary Bonsor, F-lex

Rachel Amos, Senate

Catherine Krow, Digitory Legal

Vanessa Challess, Tiger Law

Chrissie Lightfoot, Entrepreneur Lawyer

Jo Rogers, Navistar Legal

Karin McKercher, Twenty2 Group

Pip Wilson, Amicable

Emma Reid, Ergo Law

Silvia Hodges Silverstein, Buying Legal Council

Vandana Dhamija, Legal Operations Consulting

Susan Cooper, Accutrainee

Dale Miller

Mandy Aulak, Talem Law

Victoria Moffatt, Lex Rex Communications

Lori Gonzalez, Rayna Corp

Janet Taylor Hall, Cognia Law

Helen Burness, Saltmarsh

Christina Blomkvist, Green Counsel

Sara Hutton, Consultsh

Denise Nurse and Janvi Patel, Halebury

Helen Goldberg, Legal Edge

Kaisa Kromhof , Contract Mill