Do as I say, not do as I do

November 29, 2012

Will law firms shun the new laws on maternity leave?

Photo: Cornstock

Changes to the UK’s system of maternity and flexible working could revolutionise the workplace – according to an opinion piece written by Richard Fox, head of employment at Kingsley Napley, recently  published in The Lawyer.

Perhaps. But will it change the working environment of law firms?

Fox’s piece in The Lawyer is a persuasive call to employers to embrace legislative changes announced by the government on 13 November. By 2015, all employees will have the right to request flexible working arrangements, regardless of whether they have children or care for older and/or disabled relatives. And fathers and mothers will be allowed to distribute between themselves 50 of the current 52-week maternity allowance.

So far, so good for employees. The legislation gives men more options, but should particularly please women, who generally require the most flexibility when it comes to juggling work and childcare.

Fox makes a good point too: survey statistics suggest that the majority of employers now consider flexible working practices to have many business benefits, including a positive effect on staff retention. So this could, as the author says, “be a significant milestone in the journey to opening up the UK workplace to all”.

Real world vs. Big Law

But there’s the real world, and there are law firms.

Yes, many firms have made strides to implement more flexible working practices, particularly smaller ones. But many of the larger City practices remain woeful.

The latest diversity league table from the Black Solicitors Network, for instance, shows that a small number of firms are now nearing a 50/50 male-to-female partner ratio. About time too, given that more than 50% of trainees entering the profession are women.

But the table shows that in the majority of firms, female representation drops off rapidly towards the more senior ranks. According to The Lawyer, for instance, 23.5% of partners and just 9.4% of equity partners at top UK law firms by revenue are female.

Circumventing rules

Some might say that the legislation will force these firms to change. Lawyers appear to be quite good at getting around the rules, though.

Take maternity leave. Regardless of legislation, female lawyers at top firms know that if they take any kind of substantial break from work after having a child, then they’ll have no client-facing practice to return to.

That’s why they end up leaving the profession or moving to a smaller firm that has more forward-thinking policies with regard to women returning from maternity leave.

As for the idea that male lawyers might share some of their partner’s maternity leave? Well, it’s kind of laughable. The culture of City firms is 24/7 availability and total commitment. The thought of a lawyer proposing such a break would be tantamount to career suicide.

And there’s one very good reason why flexible working more generally won’t work for men or women in the legal profession: the billable hour. While the chargeable hour continues to prevail, it supports working all hours, rather than working efficiently or flexibly.

Pushed out

Legislation might force employers to abide by certain rules. But culture and peer influence are the biggest motivators of employee behaviour. If a male or female lawyer thinks that taking time out or working flexibly will result in them being quietly pushed out the back door, then they’ll either not act or they’ll pre-empt what they see as inevitable by leaving.

That’s the situation with leading law firms right now. And arguably, it’s not legislation that will change it. The only thing that will force City firms to reconsider their working environment is when they find they have a huge talent hole, caused by the resignation of all their female stars. CP

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