Law is losing talented women: what can we do?

Law is losing talented women. The Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Annual Statistics report Reveals the scale of the problem: despite significantly more women than men studying law, receiving training contracts and qualifying as solicitors only 33 per cent of partners across the UK are women. This number is lower for magic circle firms (27 per cent). The commercial imperative to address this imbalance has never been stronger as more businesses take gender parity into account when choosing their legal panels.

We know the biggest leak in the female talent pipeline occurs when women have children. Of all the professions, law is notoriously difficult to balance work with care responsibilities.

I believe hope is on the horizon as employers increasingly recognise the value of mining the largely untapped pool of returner talent. This pool commonly referred to as “returners” is largely made up of women that have taken an extended career break to care for children, or to explore other interests away from corporate life, and are now ready to return to work. Although not a panacea to fix the leaking talent pipeline, attracting returners back to the workplace offers employers a fast route to bolster the female talent pipeline at more senior levels.

While more firms are offering support to attract returners back to work very little knowledge is being shared, either between firms or across different industries about the best way to do this. To bridge this gap ECC has produced a research-based report, Bringing Talent Back to the Workforce: How to make returner programmes work for your organisation. It is designed to help employers understand the full range of support they might consider offering, and identify which option will best meet the needs of their business.

Insight from ECC’s Career Returners’ Survey is included in the report. Completed by women across all professions, including law, the research highlights, from a returner’s perspective, the personal constraints and professional challenges of returning to work and what an employer can do to ensure their return is a success.

Critical to the success of the return is the understanding that returners differ from other “new starters.” Many are returning after a considerable length of time away from the workplace, and may be grappling with a change of role and managing family through the change too.

Women that had returned to the workplace said their greatest professional challenge is achieving a sustainable work-life balance. A billable hours culture and belief that clients require their lawyers to be continuously present in the office have resulted in slow progress toward flexible work patterns across many firms. This is something law firms need to address urgently or risk losing legal talent to in-house teams or other professions. Over a third of returners in our survey had changed industry sector saying their current job offers more flexibility than the one they had prior to taking a break.

Networking, which is essential for originating new business and making partner, was the second highest ranking professional challenge. Most networking events are held outside of regular office hours. Employers need to be mindful that returners are balancing work with care responsibilities; in fact, the returners we surveyed ranked finding alternative care arrangements for their child as the biggest personal challenge they face. Firms that can create more opportunities to network within rather than outside office hours will enable more women to participate in networking opportunities.

Even the most super confident individual is likely to experience an initial gap in confidence on their return. Women in our survey said having a supportive line manager or partner who understands the confidence gap is key to rebuilding confidence as is coaching on an individual or group basis.

Employers that can offer effective support to attract and retain returners will find themselves sitting on a talent gold mine.

Emma Spitz is a director at the Executive Coaching Consultancy. She has over twelve years experience advising City law firms and coaching female lawyers on their career development.