How to lose your women staff

Turning back the clock on flexible work progress following the pandemic can see talented lawyers, particularly mothers, unable to progress in their careers or leave the profession altogether, says Dana Denis-Smith, CEO at Obelisk Support

Dana Denis-Smith|CEO at Obelisk Support|

The number of companies that have decided to mandate their workers’ return to the office is on the rise and 2024 is setting up to be a critical year for managers and workers seeking to find common ground on what flexible working patterns should be acceptable in their organisation. The legal profession is no different from other businesses with some firms announcing that they planned to link performance-related financial rewards to presence in the office so as to incentivise their staff to return in higher numbers.

The pandemic forced the profession to adopt remote working, a huge change which, for the past 3 years, has made life that little bit easier and more affordable for working parents. Despite this, the majority are still feeling the strain. There is still some way to go before the profession truly gets to grips with a problem that sees too many talented lawyers — primarily mothers — unable to progress in their careers or drop out of the law altogether.

We are now starting to see a race to mandate workers back to offices without taking into consideration caring responsibilities – and costs – is a risky one-size-fits-all approach to commit to. It also threatens career progression and will reduce the economic participation of parents just at a time when the talent market remains tight. Forcing parents – and often mothers — to make a zero-sum choice:  to come in or leave altogether. This smacks of an era we should all want to leave behind. Collaboration in person without an inclusive approach will leave many of those who are not in the room behind – rather than level the playing field, it reintroduces inequality of the type we had hoped to leave behind with the pandemic.

Return to the office mandates to make up for a lack of managerial skills

The management’s rationale in demanding staff work primarily from offices is that more onsite collaboration will result in improved performance in a dire economic climate. In fact, managers are also looking for clearer and simpler work patterns to benefit their outdated skills – Law Care research found that in 2021 “only 48% of those in a position of management or supervisory capacity had received leadership, management, or supervisory training”. It advised firms “to promote the importance of management training to provide the skills required to support individuals alongside regular catch-ups and appraisals”.

For parents, who have to organise work around inflexible school and nursery timetables as well as to cover the ever-increasing cost of childcare (and commuting!), this shift to spending more time in the office will lead to many of them quitting or taking on more ad hoc, consultancy work to safeguard the flexibility the family needs. One in three parents responding to a recent survey by childcare provider Pebble said they had moved jobs to secure more flexibility and avoid a £600 monthly increase in childcare costs.

Similarly, in response to this return to the office drive, parents are starting to worry that more flexible working patterns limit their opportunities and that as a result, they may be missing out on the ‘best’ work. The profession must work harder when it comes to being transparent about work allocation, promotions and recruitment, making sure that there is a level playing field that doesn’t disadvantage those juggling caring commitments. This, rather than on-site presence, should be a management priority to level the playing field not to erect new barriers.

Legal businesses are more conscious than ever of the need to improve their working cultures to ensure they are inclusive and able to attract and retain talented lawyers. This was reflected in the responses we received in our Next 100 Years 2022 survey of mothers working in the legal sector. The survey showed employers were providing support to working mothers, including flexible hours (63%) and remote working (80%) with the overwhelming majority (79%) saying their employers were supportive when they needed flexibility.

Earlier this year, in a further temperature check of what initiatives law firms were running to support their female staff, the respondents overwhelmingly considered the offer of flexible working by their firm a positive enabler for their career progression — most organisations offered remote or hybrid working (88%) and part-time working (68%) at the time and for the women surveyed considered both measures to be very effective.

A threat to women’s law career progression

Time will tell if productivity levels increase in the firms that incentivise on office attendance. In our sector, we should be concerned about returning to a culture of presentism which, coupled with the billable hour targets that most firms still operate, can force some workers out of work altogether due to too much pressure. Our research showed that there is still a feeling among the mothers we spoke to that employers treat them differently to their male counterparts and that any move towards more flexible working or part-time hours could have a detrimental impact on their career prospects. The aim should be to level the playing field not to create a dual track approach to career progression based on where we work.

Simply returning to pre-pandemic schedules when the world has been in motion and been suffering some significant structural shifts — especially in terms of slow economic growth and heightened political risk — won’t do. Firms would be better served by figuring out a path to embed new ways of working to include both remote and on-site collaboration time, to remain inclusive and productive, rather than take a one size fits all approach demanding 4 or 5 days in the office. We need to see a culture change in the profession, towards valuing outputs rather than inputs, with structural changes that give those with family commitments the ability to thrive and progress.

Dana Denis-Smith is the CEO of Obelisk Support and the founder of both the First 100 Years and Next 100 Years campaigns supporting women in law. She is the women representative on the Law Society Council.

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