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Working Parents LLP

by ParentalChoice
in Flexible working, Career
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Being a City lawyer is hard work, especially if you work in the corporate or financial sectors. Financially such hard work can have its rewards and the work can be interesting, varied and high profile. But such hard work takes time with average hours worked per week easily reaching 50 to 100 when you are in the middle of a huge deal. In addition to the hours actually worked, there is an expectation that an associate will spend time marketing to clients, researching and writing publications and helping to train junior associates and trainees. All of this within a culture of presenteeism at many firms that is almost impossible to shift. No-one wants to be the last in the door in the morning or the first out in the evening and flexible working is still far from the norm.

Given this culture it is no surprise that many working parents, particularly mothers, find that they just cannot balance the scales between their legal career and family and either do not return to work after a period of maternity leave or do return but give up the fight quite quickly. Experts blame the glass ceiling on inflexible “family unfriendly” working arrangements and punishing long hours that many parents either can’t, or aren’t prepared to, work. The talent drain is huge. A survey published by The Lawyer magazine found that whilst 60% of newly qualified lawyers are women only 18 % of law firm partners are female. This is despite various attempts by law firms to encourage them to stay. Georgina Stanley, writing in the Legal Week, stated that “senior partners concede they are still far from having a solution … because, regardless of the initiatives on offer, women are still leaving the law in their droves, often when they find their career path incompatible with family life.”

Law firms have been criticised in the past for (a) not doing enough for their working parents and (b) not doing enough to change the culture within the firms and the attitudes of the senior partners in charge. However to be fair most now do offer the almost standard benefits of enhanced maternity pay and childcare vouchers as well as various other initiatives designed to support their working parents.  Others, including three (Addleshaw Goddard LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP and Olswang LLP) whowe spoke to directly, are going much further.

Norton Rose Fulbright LLP and Olswang LLP have developed multi-faceted programs that offer a new level of support to their working parents, both male and female. In addition they are each looking at new ways to change the culture within the firms to open them up to new ideas surrounding flexible working and providing positive support to women trying to build their careers as well as manage their family lives.

A major part of these programs is the provision of maternity coaching. These programs run in three parts focusing on planning and preparation before commencing leave, planning an effective return during the leave period and a follow-up session after returning to work to help with reintegration, work/life balance and career planning. In addition these firms use the ‘keeping in touch days’ allowed during a period of maternity leave to negate the feeling of job isolation that many women complain of whilst on leave. The goal of these programs is to increase the rate of post maternity leave retention. According to Sunday Times Poll in 2013 the national average is 77%. In Norton Rose Fulbright’s case they are currently sitting at 81% – measured at one year after return to work – and are aiming for 90%. Sacha de Klerk, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP said that “a focus on both men and women is important to changing mind-sets. Maternity coaching and support with flexible working are key elements of our programme and so is working with managers and supporting working Dads in the practice.”

Another key offering is the provision of family networks within the businesses. Although known by different names these networks offer a way for working parents to connect with each other and share advice and support. In addition they offer regular education sessions on matters as diverse as understanding school attainment levels for older children to toddler sleep training. First aid training focussing on babies and children is a regular fixture for Norton Rose Fulbright as is a new workshop provision focusing on the needs of Dads.

An area that is proving more difficult to navigate is flexible working. The nature of the business is driven by client needs and to be able to meet these there must be true flexibility on the part of both the employer and the employee.  Olswang LLP, for example, believes that two-way flexibility allows people to be responsive to clients while managing family life.. They acknowledge however that in a male dominated arena where traditionally flexible working has not been the norm, there are hurdles to having flexible working accepted. Joanne Dooley, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist at Olswang LLP said that “as well as providing competitive benefits for our working parents we are working to improve the experience that people have with Olswang LLP as an employer who cares about creating the best work environment. On an individual level this includes maternity coaching for women and their immediate manager but we know that we can’t ignore the role that the wider culture plays.” For that reason Olswang LLP has provided 100 of their most senior people with unconscious bias training that challenges biases around working parents and the assumptions involved when faced with a flexible working proposal.

Addleshaw Goddard LLP is another firm which is taking seriously the issue of retention and advancement of women, particularly at senior levels.  They have launched a Gender Working Group – led by tax partner Justine Delroy, and comprised of other partners (male and female) and their diversity manager. Working directly with the business, the group has developed and implemented key initiatives within the firm such unconscious bias training and the successful pilot of a female-specific development programme (for a mixed cohort of AG women and clients), which was launched last year. This covered a variety of areas, including tools for active career management and strategies to help define, and achieve, an acceptable work-life balance through different stages of your career – a subject which particularly resonates with those with caring responsibilities. The programme is now being re-run with a new cohort of women and is receiving excellent reviews from delegates and also from managers of women on the programme who are seeing a different in the way that they are approaching their careers. Mary Gallagher, Diversity and Talent Manager at Addleshaw Goddard LLP said “Our aim is to provide a working environment where every person is respected for their individuality and given the support that they need to develop their talents.”

These have been positive steps for all firms but none of them are stopping there. They are aware of the issues affecting their working parents and the hurdles that they have to face but each of them is trying to make a fundamental difference. They view their current initiatives as simply a starting point and the long list of ideas to review in the future includes enhanced paternity leave, fertility and surrogacy policies, simplifying maternity pay and going deeper into the culture shift needed to embed family friendly values into the business and, more widely, the whole industry. Being a lawyer may be hard work but knowing that as a working parent you are supported and valued by the people you work for is a vital part to combining your career with childcare. Let us hope that more law firms take note.

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