Jennifer Olmedo-Rodriguez, shareholder and head of Buchanan’s Miami office, contributed an article to Daily Business Review, “Where Are All the Female Attorneys?”
We are living in a time where staggering numbers of women—especially female attorneys—are struggling to balance work and life responsibilities and are searching for the support they need to grow and thrive in their careers.
The statistics are harsh: 2.5 million women have left the workforce since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to a myriad of reasons ranging from layoffs to lack of child care, women find themselves having to step back from, or completely abandon, their careers. In the legal industry specifically, a substantial number of female minority lawyers were recently reported to have left, or have considered leaving, the profession. This reality presents a worrying picture, especially when coupled with the fact that in 2020, the National Association for Women Lawyers reported that only 21% of women are equity partners at their firms—with only 3% of those women being of color. As women in law firms, we have the obligation to maintain open lines of communication so that women lawyers know they are not alone.
I can personally relate to women struggling to find balance—especially in the legal profession. I faced the hard decision of taking a step back from my career when I became a first-time mom and ultimately left my position, albeit temporarily, when my son was 6 months old. Long before the word “pandemic” was in our lexicon and “working from home” was an anomaly rather than the norm, I struggled to navigate being a new mom and the perception that I could not give my work the attention it needed. I found myself tired, overwhelmed and isolated because I looked around and did not see who had found that balance. The more I speak to women at this point in my career, I realize the necessity of having a professional working mom role model. We need that support and guidance from one another to learn how to establish a flexible, internal network at home that allows us to thrive professionally without having to sacrifice one.
Too often we have these conversations in private, among our friends and colleagues, but it’s high time we have a public discussion around how we, as lawyers within our firms and at the personal level, can support female attorneys at all stages of their careers—whether they are caring for children or aging or ill family members. Here are four things I have found critical to the amplification and support of female voices:
To substantially enhance the numbers of female attorneys entering, and remaining in the industry, tangible, active support must come from the highest levels of firm management. I am fortunate to have “grown up” professionally in a firm that fosters a sincere leadership-backed commitment to diversity, including the advancement and retention of women lawyers. And I am proud to say all four Florida offices of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney are led by exceptional women.
Additionally, it is important to embrace your allies within your firm. Buchanan’s Miami office— comprised predominately of female lawyers—brings to life our firmwide priority to build a culture of collaboration, support and inclusivity. We actively practice elevating and supporting each other, acting as soundboards for each other, amplifying each other’s voices and genuinely cheering each other’s successes. Our outstanding male peers not only recognize the work, value and successes of their female colleagues, they genuinely understand that the inclusion and advancement of female lawyers is imperative to the firm’s and our clients’ success.
Mentor, Recruit and Retain
My firm focuses heavily on mentorship. But, mentorship is not necessarily limited to professional advice. Our female shareholders work closely with younger attorneys to ensure that they have the benefit of their experiences, networks and institutional knowledge as well as offering advice on how to navigate the challenging times as a new parent or a primary caregiver for an ailing parent. This hands-on support is directly tied to retention.
Being in a leadership position myself, the responsibilities I am tasked with are great—especially when it comes to ensuring I cultivate an office that is welcoming and supportive of women in all stages of their lives and careers. As mentioned earlier, I noticed early in my career how difficult it was to find working moms in leadership roles within the legal industry. The reality that I now serve as an example of someone in that position drives me each day. Firmwide, we enthusiastically support, recruit and advance working mothers. Indeed, one shareholder positively recounts how the firm actively recruited her while she was on maternity leave with her second child.
Invest in Resources
For law firms and businesses across all industries, the resources you provide employees directly impact their success and ability to do their job. I am fortunate to work for an organization that allows for flexibility in hours so that I can take my kids to school or doctor’s appointments, attend soccer games or dance rehearsals and chaperone field trips. That unspoken level of trust —knowing that employees will get their work done without needing to set designated office hours is invaluable to supporting working parents or lawyers who have similar responsibilities later on in life when caring for sick or elderly family members.
For working parents, daycare is another great option for companies to showcase their support. During the onset of COVID-19, many working parents struggled to balance home schooling and child care while also working. Our firm was able to help offset this challenge by providing virtual day care, which gave young children activities to do while also being virtually supervised so that parents could attend to their work responsibilities.
Don’t be Shy About the Issues at Hand
The last piece of advice aimed at all my fellow female attorneys: keep talking about the issues at hand. In order to overcome the challenges we face and continue on our chosen career paths, we need to address them head on, help provide solutions and implement change.
I often share my experiences of what it is like to be a first generation Cuban-American woman and a mother in the legal industry. Through these conversations I have found allies, mentors and lifelong friends. By telling our stories and sharing our experiences, we help inspire the next generation of female attorneys and continue to develop the industry as a place where all women—regardless of their personal life circumstances—can thrive.
I would be remiss if I did not thank the women lawyers that came before me for the work they have done to pave the way. For all of our allies along the way, thank you for supporting us and amplifying our voices. Continue to pay it forward whenever possible and do not be shy about reaching out to women you admire and letting them know that you are rooting for them and are proud to see them succeed.