Keeping Mum

The challenges and rewards of a career in law are attracting more young women. In some law firms women now make up to 60 per cent of the graduates recruited, yet only around 5 per cent go on to achieve partnership. Why?

The biggest crunch time undoubtedly comes when women solicitors are in their 30s and well established in their profession. Critically, it is also an age at which many start a family. The pressures of the job are rarely conducive to life with young children. Some women leave for less demanding jobs in commerce and industry. Too many feel forced out.

I once heard this described by a senior partner as ‘natural wastage’. In fact, it is nothing short of appalling management and a huge squandering of skills, experience and training. Thankfully, some of the most forward-looking law firms are beginning to address the matter, recognising that the issue is likely to escalate further with imminent new regulations on parental leave and flexible working.

One of the most effective ways to retain talented women is through maternity coaching. This is executive coaching not just for expectant mothers, but their line managers too. The aim is to make the handover of work prior to maternity leave as seamless as possible and to ensure that the new mother is fully up to speed and 100 per cent effective and committed from her first day back in the office.

Maternity coaching takes place in the run-up to maternity leave and in the crucial weeks just before and after return. As part of the process, the firm’s internal policy should be reviewed to ensure it is as family-friendly as is practicable. This can be very good for business as it helps retain talented members of the team, avoids the expense and disruption of finding replacements, boosts morale and strengthens the firm’s reputation as a good employer, which will in turn help the firm attract the best staff.

A key improvement to a firm’s family policy might, for example, be the introduction of more flexible hours, or days when work can be done from home. In a recent survey among professional women who were also mothers, including lawyers, doctors and senior managers, 90 per cent said a flexible working policy was one of the most valuable things an organisation could offer. Another nine out of 10 said that having a family meant they could not be as flexible as before in working extra hours. Other findings included 19 per cent who felt discriminated against because they were working mothers, while over a quarter said their relationship with their boss worsened with motherhood. One in four suffered a lack of confidence on return and 41 per cent had returned to a different role after maternity leave.

From these results it is obvious that the problem is not confined to legal practice. However, law firms usually lag behind when it comes to being family-friendly. Many suffer from a pronounced generation gap: given that the majority of partners are middle-aged, white and male, it is hardly surprising their empathy with working mothers is low.

Law firms have a good reputation for offering excellent financial packages for maternity leave. Where they fall down is in handling workplace maternity issues with emotional intelligence. Here are two typical scenarios: arriving back on the first day after maternity leave, a woman might find her Law Society subscription has not been renewed in her absence, or she finds she no longer gets the interesting cases.

Instances like these are relatively simple to remedy. Coping with unexpected foreign trips and unpredictable hours, which upset carefully laid childcare plans, takes greater dexterity but is usually achievable. For example, Linklaters offers an emergency childcare service.

Part-time working and job-shares can work well, especially where solicitors have built a strong working relationship with their clients. Many women solicitors with young children find they can no longer work the hours demanded to become a partner, yet are committed to practising in a senior role. Some firms have introduced new titles, such as consultant, which recognises their contribution.