Should mothers have to choose between a legal career and family?

Parental leave has been subjected to much debate for gender expectations and challenges that have long seemed bias towards women. In January 2020 the FT reported that there are more woman practising law than men, however, there is a disproportionate number of women occupying the top roles.

The mother lawyer

Shared parental leave policy (ShPP) brought in 2015 by the conservative government, aimed at allowing both parents the option to have time away from work to look after their new-born without the pressure relying solely on the mother, who is entitled to a significant amount more leave. Interestingly, this is crucial for households that reject the traditional nuclear family and is more inclusive to same sex households. However, this does not eradicate the presumptions inherently against women as more unreliable and unstable during the hiring process or to be put forward towards the progressive structure to partner, the belief that a woman will start a family and have to have time out of their career is still rife amongst legal recruiters.

If a woman chooses to take maternity leave coming back to work female lawyers have to ‘make their case again’ in regard to attracting clients which potentially pushes their careers back considerably compared to their male counterparts. This is evident by the shocking numbers of female partners reported in top city law firms. A Financial Times report in 2018 revealed that only 27% of female lawyers are partners at large law firms in the UK combined with this, on average a female partner will also receive a shocking 24% less annual compensation in comparison to their male counterparts.

To put into context, last year Macfarlanes reported that women at the firm earned 75.3% less than men because of lack of female partners supported by comments that juggling a family is hard, never mind making partner. Explaining their gender pay gap and lack of female partners. Magic circle law firm Freshfields only has 17% of women holding partner positions yet over half of their trainees are women. The idea that mothers have to choose between a career or family is obviously something that even the ShPP cannot fix, perhaps the new era of remote and flexible working could provide more resolution by not needing to return to the office.

Will barriers deter female lawyers from wanting to start a family?

As women are progressively seeking opportunities that historically were only open to men, because of the traditional role of the family, such barriers could deter women from wanting to start a family. However, I want to make the point how law firms such as Linklaters and Allen & Overy have both introduced, prior to the pandemic but amplified within, more flexible working structures. Linklaters’ ‘global agile working policy’ reflects the high-quality work that can be delivered remotely, the flexible working structure could be fundamental to women balancing work and staying at home, if they wish. The new flexible structures could potentially be a pathway to more female diversity in higher roles within the legal sector.

Fundamentally those are UK initiatives. The U.S has been denounced as the worst country within the OECD group for parental leave as the world’s richest country has no statuary parental leave. The majority of U.S city law firms will offer paid maternity leave, however in smaller law firms an employer might not offer any financial aid during this time.

As diversity and inclusion are becoming a key focus for prospective trainees, law firms falling behind on integrating this into their firms’ culture and structure face losing out on real talent.

Emma Owen

My name is Emma, I have recently graduated from the University of York with a 2:1 degree in Politics and International relations. I am currently working part-time at Sainsbury’s which will fund me through the PGDL in Manchester in January. Diversity initiatives are extremely important to me; having worked with charities around the world to increase equality and opportunity, I am a big advocate for challenging the status quo and to bring change to traditional structures.

Emma Owen

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