Is the profession ready for role reversals?

“The idea that females are primary carers is archaic – the time has come for male lawyers to embark on a new parental journey.”

As the new law on shared parental leave (SPL) makes its final passage through Parliament, the findings of a report of the Law Society on the ‘Diversity profile of the profession’ (April 2014) make interesting reading.

Women now account for 47.7 per cent of solicitors with practising certificates, an increase of 65.3 per cent since 2003. In 2013, the average age of a female solicitor in private practice, says the report, was 38.4 years old compared with 45.3 years for men. Of this population, 64.5 per cent of practising certificate holders were between 26 and 45 years old, the age group where most lawyers are likely to think about whether to start a family. 

Although current laws already allow maternity leave to be shared between a father and mother 20 weeks after the birth of the child, things will change in October. Employees who are giving birth, adopting or having a child through surrogacy on or after 5 April 2015 will be able to share up to 50 weeks of statutory maternity leave with their spouse or partner after the first 2 weeks of compulsory maternity leave.

Furthermore, from 1 October 2014, fathers will have a statutory right to take time off to attend ante-natal appointments or meet with adoption agencies. Employees will also receive protection from dismissal or being subjected to detrimental treatment for taking or proposing to take SPL.

The idea that females are primary carers is archaic; the new law is intended to reflect the more hands-on role that fathers can play in a child’s upbringing by allowing what is historically maternity leave to be chopped up into blocks and to be shared between a couple together or separately.

The time has come for male lawyers to embark on a new parental journey that the new law has to offer and for law firms to embrace such requests. It also means that female associates will be able to return to work sooner to service their clients in order to demonstrate their commitment to the firm and will not have to watch their male contemporaries climb the partnership ladder more quickly.

All is not rosy at the top as partnership agreements still need to catch up with the realities of modern life. There are often provisions governing maternity leave and pay but almost nothing, if anything, on adoption leave, paternity leave and parental leave, rights of which are afforded to employees by law. This leaves partners having to negotiate for time off in combination with annual leave to bond with their children.

Fortunately, however, it appears that professional working life is seeing a transformation and it is time to recognise that those who have worked hard to achieve partnership in their formative years should also be given time out of the business to raise a family.

As a profession, we could do a lot more to attract and retain talented lawyers by reviewing our business practices and diversity commitments. Hats off to the first law firm to roll out SPL for their partners.  

Julian Yew, employment partner, Penningtons Manches