There are many issues vying for the attention of law firm management these days: which firms will merge next (and should it be us?), where and how should we invest resources for strategic growth, and, underlying that, how do we attract and retain the kind of talent needed to best support our future business objectives?
For having the right people in the right place is critical for the delivery of any strategic aspiration. Most firms today would say they fully understand this. And yet, in practice, they still cut themselves off from a major source of invaluable expertise: women. For despite the years of in-depth experience shared by a growing number of women in law, how many actually make it to leadership positions, either in the fee earning or the business services populations?
This point has occupied a large swathe of the legal press lately with firms' press teams battling it out as to who will promise the highest percentage of female leaders by 2020. This is no bad thing, but a better and more relevant statistic might be to measure not just how many 'women', but how many ‘mothers’ there are in leadership roles.
I make a point of difference here, because the problem isn’t that women in general leave law. The problem is that women are often forced to leave a firm when they become mothers. That’s when a gaping talent hole opens up.
An old argument is that a firm shouldn’t have to pander to a woman who has made the personal decision to have children. But equating a biological imperative (that necessarily falls upon women) with a lifestyle choice is no solution. It merely results in senior women leaving law and depriving their firms and colleagues of years of experience.
Of course there will be a large number of women who have children and choose to become full-time mothers. There will also be those who have to come back to work as a matter of necessity rather than desire. However, there will be a large proportion of these mothers who are as committed to a career and as ambitious as they ever were before they had a family. They know it isn’t easy to balance childcare with a career, but they will often bust a gut to find a way to make it work and prove that they are every bit as dedicated as their childless colleagues. But they cannot do the impossible. They cannot open doors that have been locked against them.
This is the population of talent that firms need to do more to support.
So what do we mean by support and who is doing it right? You only have to look across the pond to see how far behind we are. In the US, organisations are running internships for women returning to work after having had a break; they have creches/nannies onsite and they offer coaching to individuals returning to work and their teams as a matter of course.
For many women here, such a set up would be a dream – but it’s not necessarily what’s expected. In fact, many would welcome something far more simple: a change in the cultural perception that ‘part time’ work is a bad thing. For this prevailing view instantly cuts off mothers (and fathers) who need some flexibility.
As recruiters we come across this barrier a lot. In two examples in just the past few months, two firms independently chose not to select a shortlisted candidate who worked four days a week because 'they did not think she would be visible enough'. This candidate was a Director of a very successful function, in a very successful firm – and she was probably one of the best on the shortlist. In this day and age – with technology giving us the opportunity to work wherever we want – surely the days of having to leave your jacket on the back of the chair to show you are still in the office are long gone?
Undoubtedly, it is not always easy and challenges will be faced along the way. Flexibility is required on both sides, and those who do work part time need to understand the pressures put on their full time colleagues as a result. But with careful planning and proper support it can be done.
Talent (or the lack of it) is seen as the number one risk for CEO's (PwC survey 2014) in the current market, and is topping the agenda of most organisations. Putting (relatively simple) mechanisms in place to support this still-marginalised pool of talented individuals is surely the place to start? At the very least this would stop firms wasting so much energy and resource on recruiting and training the best talent only to then force a huge tranche of it out the door.
I am a Director of a successful business. I am also a mother and I work part-time (four days a week) so this is a matter that is very close to my heart. It has it's challenges but I am fortunate enough to have two (male) colleagues who are incredibly supportive and we have created an environment where everyone can work flexibly if they choose (whether male or female). And, guess what? It works.