While it would be wrong to suggest that everyone’s career aspirations have shifted during the pandemic, it is clear that many people are re-thinking what is possible. Many parents mentioned that Covid has given them an epiphany and in the future they will value work-life balance much more.

“I would like to spend more time with my family and no longer buy in to the ‘living to work’ model that US law firms require,” a female senior associate at an American firm in London said. Meanwhile, a female senior associate at Slaughter and May concurred: “I have always aspired to partnership but now it does not seem like any kind of a life. I love my husband and children and would like to actually be able to spend time with them.”

Many parents also cited an enforced reduction of ambition due to circumstances. Sometimes is was forced due to circumstances. “My focus at the moment is on doing a good job to my usual high standard for my clients alongside my commitments to my family. It is hard to retain ambitions to be promoted to partner as time soon when I don’t have the capacity to take on any of the extra bells and whistles expected,” said a female senior associate at a London mid-sizer.

Survival was a big theme for many parents. “I just want to survive and keep my job. Doing both parenting and working full time had exhausted me to the point of breaking. So just survival at the moment. Any aspirations are put on hold,” a female business services staff member at Baker McKenzie said. “I find it much harder to focus on long term ambitions and anything over and above getting through each day,” agreed a senior associate at a large international firm.

Partners too are rethinking their priorities – or some of them, anyway. “I am even more career focused,” said a male partner at a US firm in London. Though they may not all have been quite as bullish as that, partner respondents were less likely than senior associates to be rethinking their priorities.

However, though by no means a majority, several of our respondents had begun to mull an exit strategy. “I am thinking of retiring from legal practice and just spending the money,” a female partner at a national firm mused.

Meanwhile, a female partner at a South West firm wrote: “I am a salaried partner and have decided to retire a few years’ earlier than I was planning. This latest lockdown as cemented this decision. I have enjoyed being without the pressure of time recording/billing/client demands and whereas before I was worried about losing the (substantial) income, I now feel this is less important than my lifestyle.”

The data also shows the shift in associates’ career aspirations. While half of respondents were sure they wanted to be a partner before the pandemic, that number has dropped to a quarter, with many more unsure about whether it is the right option for them. The male-female breakdown is even more pronounced, with male associates much less likely than their female peers to have dropped their partnership ambitions.

Partnership aspirations of male parents pre and post-pandemic
Partnership aspirations of female parents pre and post-pandemic
It isn’t just a reconsideration of partnership. Nearly half of mid-to-junior associates are unsure if they will remain in the profession in five years’ time, though of course this may not be pandemic-related: more junior lawyer are less (or at least feel less) locked in to the profession than their superiors.

Parents are also concerned their situation is not being factored into promotion decisions. While a TLT associate said that that when she was offered time off and flexible working, “it was made clear any changes would be temporary and would not affect my career,” few other respondents mentioned receiving such assurances.

While 42 per cent of male partners were confident their firm has factored in heavier caring responsibilities to its promotion and development decisions, only 9 per cent of female associates felt the same. If these partners are truly being as mindful of parents’ careers as they believe, they certainly need to spell it out more clearly.

Selected comments
  • “I am desperate to leave the law. I have seen that law firms are all very keen to “talk the talk” and broadly publicise across the legal press the various initiatives which they have introduced, designed to help working parents, but in my experience and from what I have seen, it has simply led to the same level (if not more) work being spread across a longer working day. There has also very much been a standing warning that you need to keep your hours up as the firm will be looking to make cost savings and the easiest way that will be done will be by looking at utilisation.” – Female senior associate, Eversheds Sutherland
  • Realised the importance of greater balance and seeing child more. Not feeling fully supported at work has made me less motivated to continue my career with them. – Female business services staff, White & Case
  • I want further balance at the expense of pace of promotion. Looking to move to part time as soon as feasible/financially possible – Male fee-earner, Eversheds Sutherland
  • “The pandemic has in some ways made us re-evaluate our choices and lifestyle, but at the same time has meant we do not have the headspace or time to actually think properly about the future – there are vague statements of “we should just quit”, but no actual time to work out what alternative lives we could lead.” – Female senior associate, magic circle
  • “My partner works in the medical profession and her hours have increased to cope with the pandemic. Most of the additional childcare pressures have fallen to me as a result. Covering my chargeable hours and childcare alone takes up all my time and leaves almost nothing for additional BD, internal networking or other activities to assist with career aspirations / progression. For a large proportion of 2020 all of the working mums in my team were furloughed but there was a general attitude from above that this is not a good look for working dads. As a result the work load and pressures actually increased for those not furloughed for the remainder of the year. After this last year and the start of this one I’m no longer sure I have the energy / time to pursue my own career aspirations or a desire to do so.” – Male senior associate, national firm
  • “Been really busy and getting involved in a number of great CV building projects. I want to stay in my current role to see some of these through so no plans to change roles. If anything the lack of travel to other offices and rise of zoom, combined with no commute time means that I have a better work/life balance and can focus more on my career.” – Female business services staff, Mills & Reeve
  • “I am not at all certain I want to remain in law, the pressure and stress of it has increased exponentially, and we do not seem to get any support for mental health.” – Female partner, US firm
  • “I feel more strongly that my responsibilities lie first and foremost with my child. I was disappointed by my firm’s reaction to my request for part time working… my aspirations to stay with the firm and work towards promotion have changed, and I’m in the market for a more flexible and forward thinking organisation (with more of an eye on innovation).” – Female associate, Womble Bond Dickinson
  • “I will change jobs to a GC position.” – Female partner, international firm
  • “I am completing this survey while trying to teach a 6-year-old about fractions and doing it badly. I would say I have lowered my aspirations because older, more senior colleagues with grown up or older kids still have time to strategise and nurture internal networks, while younger colleagues with no kids can get way more than I can done and I owe them a ton of favours. All I can do it tactically try and get the things I need to get done each day and sometimes fail at that.” – Male business services staff, large international firm
  • “It is very difficult to cope and think beyond the day-to-day. It feels hard to have aspirations beyond survival. As a new partner juggling all this is a worry.” – Female partner, large international firm
  • “From what I have seen from myself and my colleagues, I can concur with all the research that says that this pandemic has set back the cause of women’s working equality a good 10 years. A refusal to adapt and accommodate the additional burdens placed on women who are parents will cost this industry dear, in terms of a potential brain drain.” Female PSL, magic circle

Reader questions

On the first day of the survey we offered the chance for readers of The Lawyer to offer their own questions, and we added some of them. The first read: Do you feel that your male colleagues who are parents have been impacted in the same way as your female colleagues who are parents?

The question didn’t explicitly state “negatively impacted” but the implication is there. The result certain shows a large discrepancy between the men and women who answered this question, with only 8 per cent of women agreeing that fathers have been affected in the same way as mothers. That compared to 35 per cent of men.

Several men pointed out that societal expectations were unfairly penalising them at work. A senior associate at a major offshore law firm wrote: “Pressure is placed on men to pick up the slack in the workplace due to the ingrained societal expectation that women should be the primary childcarer. I am expected to be more available than my female colleagues.”

A peer at a mid-size London firm agreed: “As a father, I find it a battle to challenge a perceived, false assumption that my wife will be the sole carer for our children. While supported by my immediate manager and team, I wonder if other fathers feel the same across the industry.”

“The focus rarely is on male partners with young children (which, in the broad scheme of things, may be right),” mused a male Freshfields partner.

There was, however, an acceptance from many male respondents of the burden women were undertaking. “It is crystal clear that inequality between men and women in the workforce has become far more pronounced during the pandemic.  Women lawyers who are parents of primary school children in particular are suffering and not being helped,” wrote a male BD professional.

The final reader question asked: How many hours do you have to work outside a “normal” 9 – 5 day?

What this question did not address was how many of these hours due to truly flexible arrangements and how many came ‘on top’ of normal hours worked, so it is hard to draw many conclusions.

However, the most common response was between two and four, although 12 per cent of respondents said’ more than six’. Magic circle lawyers did the most work out of business hours but across the board, at least 75 per cent of respondents at every type of firm were working at least two hours outside the normal 9-5 day.

Webcast: Building your career from home

Associates are invited to sign up for our career clinic live webcast next week, 17 March at 1pm.

In this live web event, our panel of experts will look at the challenges of working from home as a junior lawyer. How can you stay motivated working in your kitchen? What can you do to keep your career moving forward? How can you best manage work and family demands? And how can you ensure you demonstrate all your different attributes and skills to a line manager who isn’t sitting in the same room as you?