A fifth of female lawyers choose kids over careers

Jonathan Bond

The pressure of motherhood is the reason that 20 per cent of all female departees decide to leave some of the UK’s top 50 firms.

Research on attrition rates carried out by The Lawyer shows that 17 per cent of the female lawyers who left Burges Salmon and Taylor Wessing over the last 12 months did so in order to care for a family, while a similar proportion (16 per cent) did so at Berryman Lace Mawer, which is also the UK top 50 firm with the highest percentage of female partners.

In an article for The Lawyer (1 February 2010) Clare McConnell, chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS), wrote that “around 40 per cent of women leave the profession by nine years’ PQE at a cost not only to themselves, but also at a financial cost to their employers. One firm estimates that it loses £125,000 each time a senior lawyer leaves.”

In some cases women are exiting to go on maternity leave and not returning to their employer. Around three of the 34 female lawyers who left Mills & Reeve last year did not return. A ­spokesperson at Addleshaw Goddard claimed that 92 per cent of those who went on maternity leave at their firm in 2009 did return and pointed to a high level of ­flexible working among returners, with 75 per cent taking up this option.

However, there is evidence that other initiatives, when combined with flexible working, may help reduce attrition rates.

“Each individual ­circumstance is going to be ­different, so the response of firms also needs to be different,” said McConnell. “The first thing to do is to have good communication and plan maternity leave in a ­collaborative manner. When the female solicitor decides she wants to return to the workplace, the employer can help by sending legal updates via email, and once they’ve returned by looking at issues such as flexible working and childcare.”

The AWS has been ­running its ’Returner Course’ for lawyers coming back to the law for several years. The focus is on law updates and interview skills, but particularly on ­’confidence building’.

Pinsent Masons, where 24 per cent of the partners are women, offers its female lawyers similar workshops before and after they go on ­maternity leave. Director of HR and learning Jonathan Bond believes 24 per cent “isn’t good enough” and thinks that the workshops may help address this.

“We’d like to improve that. Fifty per cent of our trainees are women, ergo we must be losing some of our female talent,” he ­emphasised.

The proportion of women leaving firms for domestic or childcare ­reasons was particularly low at both CMS Cameron Mckenna and Wragge & Co at 1 and 5 per cent respectively. In both cases larger proportions of women were seeking legal employment elsewhere: 22 per cent of all female leavers at Camerons left to pursue a career either at another firm or in-house, compared with 38 per cent at Wragges.

The data is based on responses from 24 of the UK’s largest 50 firms. Not all firms track attrition rates by gender or specify reasons for leaving, while some firms, such as Herbert Smith, track additional ­reasons such as ’further ­education’ that are not ­covered here.

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