Running from the law

An exodus of female lawyers seems likely unless firms offer greater flexibility. By Sarah Simpson.

Long hours are commonplace in the legal world. But now it seems the daily grind is getting to lawyers, particularly women.

According to research undertaken by Hudson, it is not the long hours women are taking issue with, but the restrictive day-to-day conventions of the business world. Many law firms are now facing the possibility that a significant proportion of their workforce will depart for pastures new. The majority of women we surveyed are disappointed with their career progress and want greater input into their own working patterns. They are unhappy with their career prospects, and with the level of responsibility, flexibility and autonomy they are given. This contrasts with men, who believe that their career paths are fairly clearly mapped out. Our research indicates that it is no longer just the demands of family life that are encouraging women in the law to reject traditional working conventions; women of all ages want more control over when, where and how they work. If these options are not available to them in their current roles, they will consider setting up their own businesses, freelancing, retraining or pursuing an alternative career away from the law altogether.

But why are women, rather than men, forcing the pace and pursuing alternative careers? Generally, men’s definition of career success is different: a high-powered and challenging career is important for men, whereas our research shows almost half of women see this as the least important factor for job satisfaction. Personal fulfilment is a priority. Women are beginning to define power and success differently and will leave their jobs if those jobs do not change to suit the lifestyle they desire.

While the vast majority of law firms believe they are actively committed to providing flexible working opportunities, the majority of female lawyers do not agree, highlighting a serious gap between perception and reality. Employers who do not sit up and take notice might be missing a trick, as the legal sector is already struggling to find suitable candidates, both locally and internationally. To stem the tide law firms should do the following:

  • Provide effective career management programmes, considering both traditional and non-traditional career paths. Regular contact with a ‘career mentor’ will help employees feel that their careers are on track and any problems can be dealt with before they become big issues.
  • Recruit and retain women at senior levels. Female representation in the higher echelons is crucial to meeting and understanding the needs of the female workforce.
  • Any change to the status quo involves a level of trust, so enhance the likelihood of success by trialling alternative working arrangements with a valued and trusted employee.
  • Where alternative arrangements can be considered, ensure that there are clear processes for the firm and the employee so that everyone’s expectations are managed up front.
  • Consider different ways to facilitate employees’ desire for ‘personal fulfilment’; some firms will consider sabbaticals or time off in lieu.
  • Flexible working can work in the legal world. Options could include job-sharing or even encouraging staff to start and finish at a time they choose.
  • As success breeds success, showcase examples of employees who work flexibly so that other employees can see it working in practice.

Law firms need the skills and experience that women offer; after all, a balanced workplace benefits all employees. Many women are no longer prepared to tolerate outdated working systems or conform to conventional hierarchies. However, to sustain and increase female representation in the legal world, both employees and employers need to work together to ensure this burgeoning trend does not become the norm.

Sarah Simpson is managing director at Hudson Legal UK