Women in legal business series, part 2: Maternity leave and flexible working

We have spent the last few months meeting with senior women in law firms to discuss what challenges they face as women, exploring areas such as discrimination, gender pay gap, and returning to work after maternity leave.  Part one focused on the most recurring messages around very subtle or “everyday” sexism that manifests itself in very small, every day scenarios.   
 
Part two of our series focuses on the topic of returning from maternity leave and negotiating flexible working.   
 
When it came to part-time working, there was no clear divide between the experiences of women in larger firms versus smaller firms; neither was more or less flexible in what they offer, but there were clear frustrations around the pressure to do the same volume of work in three or four days that was previously done in five.  Many said that they found it hard to juggle the workload and there was a real undertone that whilst firms allow part-time working, it’s not always put into practice well enough to actually work, or that law firms are not quite as flexible as some other sectors, where job shares are more openly considered.   
 
Part of the problem in negotiating part-time working in the legal sector is that it is not commonplace for lawyers to work part-time or job share; when you’re working on a deal you have to be there 24/7 to meet the ever-increasing demands of clients.  This means that culturally law firms find it difficult to understand that a marketing and business development role could be done as a job share.  Aside from some roles such as bid management where continuity on a document is key, the general consensus was that many business development and marketing roles could be done on a job share basis.   
 
We wondered if part of the issue is whether some women lack the confidence to push back and communicate what they actually want.  Throughout our research, it was very much acknowledged that men are much more confident in asking for a pay rise, a promotion or in this case, flexible working.  Whilst there are a handful of women who have the confidence and self-belief to get exactly what they want, they fall into a small minority.  Many women aren’t confident enough to push the boundaries and ask for what they really want if it’s never been done before. This means that they end up settling for what’s on offer which ultimately leads to resentment and dissatisfaction.   
 
Interestingly, part-way into our research, we planned an event on managing your career around maternity and part-time working but had a surprisingly low response.  Feedback showed that women were concerned that attending such an event would alert their boss to the fact that they may be planning on going on maternity leave in the foreseeable future. Maybe they were worried that this could impact on any promotion or pay rise that they were hoping for or even worse, put them at the top of the list in any redundancy programme.  It’s of great concern that women should feel this kind of pressure to hide that they may at some point be planning a family.  Whilst most firms would say they accept that maternity planning is part of running a diverse business, culturally this message is just not getting through.  
 
Shared parental leave should also be acknowledged.  It’s been well publicised that firms like Linklaters, Herbert Smith Freehills, CMS and Osborne Clark (among others) have implemented good shared parental leave policies.  Interestingly, The Lawyer recently reported that the uptake of shared parental leave amongst lawyers was around 5% which is undoubtedly low but higher than the national average of 2%.  Whilst anecdotally a few firms have had a good uptake, feedback is that it is slow to be taken up.  This will no doubt change over the coming years. 
 
Of course we shouldn’t overlook that for many people, the hit on salary when reducing their hours just isn’t manageable.  With the cost of living ever increasing, both parents working full time (or the increasing number of women choosing to have a baby on their own), and childcare costs taking a huge percentage of salary, people are under pressure to work more days than they would perhaps like.  This is exacerbated by the fact that salaries haven’t really increased since the recession, despite the cost of living going up significantly.    
 
Law firms could involve HR teams to help with a cultural shift, adapting the firm’s policies.  Employers in other industries often say that working mothers benefit the business enormously and have skillsets others may not.  A study by Microsoft showed that employers thought working mothers made better team players, have stronger multi-tasking skills and are often up to 25% more productive. Providing flexibility and managing it well, will result in satisfied and loyal employees.   
 
Finally, from the perspective of a recruiter, we find whilst firms are prepared to offer existing employees flexibility, when recruiting on the open market only a small minority consider recruiting on a part-time basis, even when the role may be replacing a part-time worker.  This makes career progression very limiting for part-time working mums.  It begrudgingly traps women in their role/firm or forces them out of the sector to another that is more flexible, such as accountancy.  In a market that is already candidate short, firms need to implement policies that help increase (rather than decrease) the pool of candidates they employ.   
 
Our proactive research in the market focused on people currently in employment, but we also know from many years in the market that there is also a forgotten talent pool of women who have taken time out of their careers to care for young children, and find it very difficult to re-enter full time employment.  Over the years, we have met a number of excellent candidates to whom this applies, but these women have really struggled to persuade firms to hire or even meet with them.  As a result, we have introduced a clause in our terms of business offering clients a 50% reduction in fees should they employ someone who has been on parental leave for a period of two years or more.   
 
In summary, whilst most firms offer flexible working to returning mothers, it is clear that there is still a long way to go to engrain acceptance into the DNA of a firm’s culture around part-time working and make sure that it really works for women.  No doubt this will only start to change as more men take up the offer of parental leave and flexible working and see first hand the challenges that women have faced for decades! 
 
If you are interested in joining the debate around what has been discussed in the article or would like to contribute to future articles in the series, we would be delighted to hear from you on 020 7822 4352. 
 

Simone Sullivan and Frosso Miltiadou are directors of Anthem, a specialist professional services marketing and business development resourcing firm. Both have worked in professional services recruitment for more than a decade. Learn more about Anthem Consulting.

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