We have passed the one-year anniversary of the start COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of the second week of March 2020, the first positive coronavirus case was documented in Colorado, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, public schools across the state shut down, the NBA playoffs were suspended, toilet paper sold out everywhere, and the workforce went remote in droves.
It was a sudden and drastic change to the fundamental fabric of our lives, and one that we are still living a year later. We wanted to delve into the impact of this past year for women in the legal profession and reached out to some of our CWBA members to ask them about how the pandemic has affected them personally.
Most didn’t respond.
Probably because it’s been a really hard year. The lack of responsiveness and member engagement tells its own story of how things are going.
From the responses we did receive, feeling isolated was a common theme. The pandemic has made people feel cut off from their extended family, colleagues, and friends. We feel lonely. We miss casual social interactions with humans that don’t live in our house.
Illness was unquestionably a concern, particularly for those with higher-risk family members. The constant worry about what is (and isn’t) safe is an ongoing burden, and one that is felt the most by those who did not have the ability to isolate at home.
Pay cuts and lost jobs were notable impacts as well, although the legal sector does not seem to have been as hard hit as some. The responses we received were mostly limited to partners or friends having job insecurities and financial hardship, and the impact of those situations on the family unit as a whole. While we did not have any responses where someone discussed voluntarily giving up their job because of the pandemic, that has unquestionably happened for some legal professionals.
Because the biggest pandemic impact for CWBA members was the shift to remote work and remote schooling.
The lines between home and work are gone. We are meeting our coworkers’ children and pets for the first time when little heads pop into frame during Zoom meetings. It’s always a gamble what background noise will filter through, sometimes to be unfortunately immortalized in official court recordings. We are getting an unexpected and intimate glimpse into our coworkers’ personal lives. And sometimes a nice view of the previously-unused-now-turned-makeshift-home-office corner of their dining room.
Unsurprisingly, the burden of dealing with the increased demands of home and children as a direct result of closed childcare facilities, remote school, and shuttered extracurricular activities has fallen disproportionately on women, even in stable and supportive two-parent households. As with nearly everything else, it’s also been disproportionately worse for women of color and other marginalized groups. And unfortunately, the impact of the pandemic on women may long lasting.
Our members talked about how they have handled some of these challenges. For example, setting up a schedule to split hours with a partner, where one parent takes the morning toddler-keeper shift and the other takes the afternoon. While such a split significantly increases the odds of each parent getting at least a few uninterrupted work hours in, a productive morning is simply not enough to meet the full-time work demands for most legal professionals (looking at you, 2000+ billable hours yearly minimums). Those remaining hours are made up by working late into the evening and on weekends, sometimes at the sacrifice of sleep and mental health.
Others have been able to hire a sitter to help when daycare closed. Some had family members that could provide care as well or a partner who lost a job and was able to switch to being the fulltime caregiver, cobbling together some schedule of support. But again, these measures often fall far short of the significant care needed for a parent to reliably put in 40 hours (or more) at work every week. And the situation has been so much worse for those without the ability to work from home or a supportive partner.
The year has been a constant strife between of the simultaneous demands of work and home. Unfortunately, this discord has made some feel like they are not doing anything well enough, expressing feelings of failure. People are struggling to be fully present for their children because of work obligations, but also can’t be fully present at work because of family obligations. As one member said, “It’s a vicious cycle that just makes me feel guilty all of the time.”
But some of these changes, while challenging and requiring substantial adaption at the time, have not been entirely bad. People spoke positively about the decrease in commute time from working remotely. And when the children aren’t at school or day care, there is no crushing burden to make it out of work for that 6:00 p.m. pickup deadline.
Family togetherness, while sometimes a bit much due to its pandemic-induced-never-ending aspect, was also seen as a positive development overall. Members talked about regularly having family dinners together, along with things like movie nights and playing family games, to a degree that just didn’t happen before the pandemic.
Because work has required a significantly more flexible schedules across the board, it has become easier in some ways to fit in the appointments and block off time that needs to spent away from work. And it’s not just office jobs that are now operating online, committee meetings and CLEs are all remote now too. Attendance is merely a click away, and suddenly bailing to deal with some unforeseen interruption is equally easy.
And while having professional meetings interrupted by a wayward family member is never great, it can be good to have the occasional reminder that you and your colleagues are also humans, complete with full and complex lives far beyond a mere job title.
Despite the significant challenges of this year, some good changes have come about. CWBA members are optimistic that the increased flexibility in schedules and options for remote work will continue after the crest of the pandemic has long passed. This may give legal professionals more freedom and ability to adapt their work schedule to fit their lives, rather than always needing to scaffold their lives onto their jobs. And that would be a truly positive outcome of this pandemic.
 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/feb/28/mums-women-coronavirus-covid-home-schooling-inequality?CMP=share_btn_tw  https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/05/07/toilet-flush-supreme-court/  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02006-z  https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/9/feature-covid-19-economic-impacts-on-women  https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/10/30/492582/covid-19-sent-womens-workforce-progress-backward/
Marty Whalen Brown is a Staff Adjudicator at the Office of Appeals in the Colorado Department of Human Services. She holds a J.D. degree from the University of Colorado Law School and clerked at the Office of the Presiding Disciplinary Judge under the Colorado Supreme Court after graduating.