How the Pandemic Upended Life and Work for Women in Tax
Jennifer White, a partner at Reed Smith LLP, had recently become a mother of three when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and like many parents in big law, she was suddenly left without childcare.
White said her husband, who also works full time, is very helpful, but that when things fall apart, it tends to fall on her first. “Things certainly were difficult for a while,” she said.
Similar scenarios were playing out across the industry, according to practitioners who shared concerns with Tax Notes about burnout and stymied progress on gender and diversity. A year later, however, those concerns appear to be tempered by optimism about how the adaptability demonstrated by the legal industry during the crisis could benefit women as offices reopen.
Lisa Tavares, a partner at Venable LLP, said in March that her babysitter was unable to help for a year. “She did a lot in my house. She was my wife,” Tavares said. As a result, she was left with hours of extra work every week — shouldering more of the household responsibilities than her husband, who is also an attorney. “We were much more balanced before, so I think his perception is that we’re still balanced,” she said.
Tavares said she worked from her basement and asked Alexa devices throughout the house to send her kids reminders about school. “All of us lawyers have been successful at various levels of our lives. . . . You’re used to trying to achieve it all,” she said. Suddenly being responsible for helping children achieve at the same level was a lot, Tavares said.
Kathleen Quinn was promoted to partner at McDermott, Will & Emery at the start of 2020 while on maternity leave. She returned to work in February, and by mid-March, everyone in her office was working from home. As a new partner with a 5-month-old, she found it overwhelming at first, she said.
Sarah Beth Rizzo, an attorney with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in Chicago, had two young girls and was in early pregnancy when the pandemic hit and child care disappeared. She was hoping to make partner in 2021.
“We were fortunate as a firm — and particularly in tax — that we were particularly busy,” Rizzo said. She and her husband set up a Montessori work cycle in their basement and scheduled at night how to handle the next day.
Jennifer Karpchuk, a state and local tax attorney with Chamberlain Hrdlicka, found herself working from home with three young children who had been in day care or school before the pandemic.
“It’s a lot of early mornings, working really late at night to try to make up time,” said Karpchuk, who is a shareholder at the firm. “It’s definitely been tough.”
Tax attorneys generally are adept at managing competing demands and challenging schedules. For many women in the profession — mothers and caregivers in particular — the pandemic has been an unparalleled test of those attributes.
The sense of inundation was evident from statistics that surfaced as the crisis persisted.
Seventy percent of respondents to the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa’s 2020 Partner Compensation Survey, launched in July 2020, said they expected their compensation for the year to be affected by the pandemic. Women were more likely than men to expect their compensation to be negatively affected, and those who did “anticipated a higher level of impact across all categories,” including draw, base compensation, and bonuses, compared with their male counterparts.
According to a study by McKinsey & Co., while the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated workplace inequalities for women generally, working mothers, Black women, and women in senior management positions have experienced significant setbacks. Women with children under 10 considered leaving the workforce altogether at a rate that was 10 percentage points higher than the rate for men with young children, the study says.
In January CNN Business reported that 140,000 jobs were lost in December 2020 and that women accounted for all of them. Overall in 2020 women lost roughly a million more jobs than men, the report says. Many of the job losses occurred in industries like retail and education, the latter of which is female-dominated, it notes.
By fall, however, it became evident that the legal industry was doing better than expected, with some firms indicating that they were doing better than the previous year, according to Major, Lindsey & Africa’s survey. In December 2020 there were even job gains in professional and business services that helped offset losses in private education, leisure, and hospitality, according to a January 8 release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Tax Practice in a Pandemic
Change was overabundant in tax practices across the globe. Early in the pandemic, every week was different, Rizzo said.
“When folks were first sent home in March 2020, there was definitely a sense of panic in the market, given the uncertainty that the world was facing,” said Jessica Hough, a tax partner with Skadden.
Some deals were put on pause, but soon, “there was a lot of work involving transactions that would help provide liquidity for our clients," as well as restructuring or sale transactions for clients facing financial difficulties, Hough said. Those types of transactions tended to move quickly, as there was a sense of urgency among clients to secure liquidity or shore up financials, she said.
In mid-March 2020 things came to a standstill. “I mean they stopped completely,” said Nadine Gelli, a tax partner with Kirkland & Ellis LLP in Paris who advises on corporate transactions. Deals that had been signed continued to closing, but nothing new was coming in, she said. In France, deal closings that were once celebrated with everyone in the same room drinking champagne were replaced with DocuSign, she said.
“In June  we saw big restructuring start,” Gelli said. Attorneys who normally handle corporate mergers and acquisitions gave a hand to restructuring people, who were swamped. That lasted all summer, she said. M&A picked back up in late summer, and the end of 2020 “was just crazy,” Gelli said.
Estate planning got really busy, “not only because of the pandemic and folks trying to get their affairs in order” but also because 2020 was an election year and people were concerned about the future of the estate tax exemption, said Nikki Hasselbarth of Venable.
Given the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, charitable giving took on a racial justice tilt, Hasselbarth said. Race came up more in nonprofits that people were starting, initiatives of nonprofit organizations, and the grants that high-net-worth individuals were providing, Hasselbarth said.
Audits and tax controversy slowed in many jurisdictions as tax authorities and courts tried to get up to speed on conducting matters remotely, although tax practitioners reported that their firms were generally well equipped to make the transition, and things were largely back to normal by the fall.
The apparent resilience of the industry during an unprecedented year didn’t come without growing pains, however.
Remote working created what several practitioners described as a blur between the boundaries of work and home life.
“Everybody was at home and available, and so it led to folks working basically seven days a week,” Hough said. No one went out to movies or kids’ sporting events; Saturdays and Sundays became just another day of the workweek for a period early in the pandemic.
Gelli agreed, saying that while it was good to see that remote work was feasible, the boundary between personal life and professional life blurred. Requests for a Saturday call “suddenly didn’t seem that weird,” she said.
Videoconferencing software presented new challenges, as did its ubiquity, and being on screen did not affect everyone the same way.
Some colleagues said that being in group Zoom meetings, which at times meant meeting others for the first time on video, “amplified that they were the only person of color in the room,” Tavares said.
The issue became particularly salient after Floyd’s death. People on conference calls and in Zoom meetings might talk about the inconvenience of stores being boarded up in the aftermath, but no one wanted to address the root of the problem — “that Black people are being unjustly killed at an alarming rate,” Hasselbarth said. “When there are things like racial unrest going on in the country and it’s just business as usual at work, I think it is taxing on individuals,” she said.
Also burdensome was the fact that life events that couldn’t be outsourced even before the pandemic didn’t go away.
Heike Weber, a tax partner with Allen & Overy in Frankfurt, Germany, has two school-age children and was left without a nanny at the beginning of the first lockdown in Germany. Her husband was battling cancer and had numerous appointments each week. “Looking at it from hindsight, I’m not really sure how I made it,” she said. “You just keep going.”
One attorney who spoke with Tax Notes on the condition of anonymity said she lost her father to COVID-19. She has elementary-school-age children and, like others, spoke of the challenges of balancing virtual school for her children while work was extra busy. She held a senior management position at her firm, which she has since left. “It’s just been nonstop this whole year,” she said. “Between family, COVID, work, and even with everything politically and socially that was going on, it was just exhausting.”
Tavares’s mother died in August 2020. Tavares had been managing her mother’s care remotely with her 80-year-old father while pandemic restrictions kept her from going to the out-of-state hospital, although she said she kept a suitcase packed and was eventually permitted to visit.
For working parents and caregivers, it’s a challenge to be at home rather than in a physical office; it becomes a hamster wheel, Tavares said.
Ingenuity combined with what many have described as a busier-than-normal year has produced new thoughts on remote work and the possibility that women can benefit from what has been learned in the legal industry over the last year and a half.
Increased video interfacing has brought greater opportunity for personal connections, Hough said. “I haven’t found networking or connecting with clients harder,” she said.
Women’s networking events have benefited, Hough added. Before the pandemic, it was impractical to fly 30 people around the country to meet in person regularly, but because everyone has gotten used to virtual platforms, logistics are less of a challenge and “that kind of networking has happened, which . . . I think is a real plus,” she said.
Rizzo said she agrees that virtual networking has helped women, particularly those with small children. “I can very easily do an evening social event that’s virtual because I don’t have to figure out child care,” she said.
Before the pandemic, people in France "weren’t too big on working remotely,” Gelli said. But the shift in mentality will remain, she predicted. The pandemic has shown that people can work efficiently away from the office. “I think we will all be more flexible. . . . We know it can work.”
Still, Gelli said, remote work has also shown that physical presence is important, and some things go better when you’re in the same room. "Associates already come into the office because they’re tired of working, eating, and sleeping in the same place," she said.
The good thing about the pandemic is that it normalized the challenges faced by working moms, said White. It’s not just women who have these challenges, she said, adding, “I think that’s been helpful.”
Weber said she thinks the mommy-track stigma that is sometimes associated with flexible schedules and remote work will abate with the help of some male partner role models who are opting to spend more time at home with family. “I would hope that it’s getting more and more common,” she said.
Given that less traditional work schedules have proven effective on a large scale, “I would hope that more females stay attracted to our profession, that they see they can make it work somehow,” and that working more flexibly at various stages in their career is not necessarily an issue, Weber said. “I haven’t seen females really leave throughout the last year,” which will hopefully give flexible working a push, she said.
Several practitioners said they don’t expect firms to require them to be in the office five days a week when offices reopen. Some said they weren’t spending every workday in the office even before the pandemic.
Michelle DeLappe, who joined Fox Rothschild LLP in August 2020 as a partner, predicted that there will be more flexibility as her firm transitions back to the office and said she hopes that will aid women’s progress in the profession. She noted that in-office expectations at some firms have been a challenge for women with family obligations.
Not only are firms more open-minded about reducing their real estate and having people work from home, “they’re also looking at going outside of their physical platform to bring in people who are going to be entirely remote,” said Meredith Frank, a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa who specializes in partner placement. “I think that trend is going to continue.”
The increased flexibility should provide women with more options to join a firm that’s a good fit for their practice but maybe doesn’t have an office where they live, Frank said. “That law firm is now willing — because they’ve seen how well it works — to take a chance,” she said. “I’ve seen a bit of that during the pandemic.”
Gelli said she wasn’t too concerned about women’s progress in the profession being set back. While it’s been difficult for colleagues and other female partners in the profession, “I think they’ve all coped,” she said. Women have come out of it completely exhausted, but they’ve come out of it, she said.
“I got put up for partner while I was on maternity leave during the pandemic and made it,” Rizzo said. Her partner class was large and diverse, and her group in Chicago has a female majority, she added. “In my experience here, I think that women are still on track."
While the tax attorney who left her firm agreed with other practitioners that she didn’t see many people exiting the profession, she said the pandemic was the tipping point in her decision to leave her job. She said she felt burned out after juggling everything and didn’t find the job personally rewarding enough to continue. “While everyone’s situation is different, I’d think there is a lot of burnout, and people are trying to grind through it — that goes for men and women,” she said.
It remains to be seen what kind of shift in the workforce will result from the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to see certainly more interest and willingness of women . . . to make some kind of a change coming out of this,” Frank said.