Women lawyers

Female talent retention in a post-COVID world

While the pandemic has created many obstacles for women's career progression within law, Nikki Alderson argues that it is by recognising these challenges that new and creative solutions can be found to the retention crisis in the legal profession.

Woman taking phone call in socially distanced office

Firstly, let's take a look at some statistics

The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) saw 2.2 million women drop out of the US labour market altogether.

Find out more about the impact of COVID-19 on childcare issues and women in work

In the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), women took on 78% more childcare than men during the first lockdown.

Undeniably, the pandemic has disproportionately affected working women worldwide.

COVID conversations and challenges

I’ve had many (off the record) COVID conversations with senior associates in Yorkshire law firms and my current female solicitor clients.

The ‘pandemic penalty’

One challenge on the horizon is what I call the ‘pandemic penalty’. Female solicitors accepted furloughing in order to facilitate home-schooling, whilst appreciating the potentially adverse effects on their visibility at work and negative impact upon their future career progression.

The very real challenge around staying visible whilst working from home, particularly when transitioning, was compounded by the increased expectation that non-keyworker parents stayed home to work.

This pressure existed whether employees were starting a new job, or returning from maternity leave whilst working compressed or part-time hours.

Whilst arguably this impacted working parents of both genders equally, for those already working part-time in particular, the visibility mountain became all that bit harder to climb.

For example, I’ve heard how female solicitors in firms with in-depth application procedures have been hindered in evidencing recent transactional experience, necessary to progress in this year’s promotional rounds.

Time ownership challenges

The pandemic has also highlighted and exacerbated other longstanding issues, including time ownership challenges.

Those who were able to keep working ended up doing their own full-time job with a huge amount of extra work from furloughed colleagues thrown in on top, without any additional pay.

You may think that this impacted male and female working parents equally, but again, ONS found that it was women who were doing the lion’s share of home schooling: 67% of women compared with 52% of men, often in circumstances where they continued to work from home where possible.

Add into the mix a dramatic increase in certain court hearings. For example in family law, thanks to remote hearings and longer court days – facilitated in part by the loss of commuter journeys whilst working from home – it is clear how women in law have become besieged both at work and at home.

From my COVID conversations, I have come to understand how many more women are giving serious consideration to leaving their firm or, more significantly, the law altogether, due to recent events and the circumstances they now find themselves in.

The silver lining?

Whilst struggling for years to fully embrace remote working, the legal profession has successfully made the transition, with fully functioning technological support and infrastructures put in place.

Firms made the kind of expedited progress which women campaigning for flexible, remote, home-based working could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

This has paved the way for a more inclusive and diverse office life, making full-time or flexible working more accessible, for working mothers especially.

Case studies and ones to watch

Currently, adopting a hybrid model (combining both flexible remote and office working), seems to be a front runner. The hybrid model would be effective if guarantees are given to avoid a two-tier system, whereby those in the office are given preferential treatment due to presenteeism/visibility over the less visible homeworkers – more likely to be women.

For example, this month DAC Beachcroft introduces its Flex Forward initiative, with employee trust at its heart, changing its traditional business model to output not input and ensuring equality for all.

Similarly, smaller, boutique firms are adopting new and innovative approaches.

Female-led Consilia Legal in Leeds introduced a four-day week for all solicitors with two years+ PQE, with no salary deduction. During the trial period, there was neither a drop in profit nor productivity, and most importantly, employees were given back their time.

Female-led Thrive Law ran a four-day week trial two years ago, whilst working SMART and encouraging its staff to work truly flexible working days/hours to suit them, rather than feeling shoe-horned into four set days.

Now, through regular communication with employees, Thrive adopts a truly flexible/hybrid model in which each individual chooses when, where and how they work.

The key response to lockdown for all these firms is a positive move away from the billable-hour target model to behaviour-focused outcomes.

Other case-based initiatives to support retention

It is important to get commitments from firms that they’ll deploy a hybrid working model for ease of access to women as well as actively support and promote a return to the workplace, wherever that may be physically.

Clarion Solicitors, for example, invests in a returner programme to attract and retain female talent through coaching. One such career break returner, Kayleigh Fantoni, shares her experiences with Clarion Solicitors.

Further, providing data-backed assurances to measure that there will be no discrimination against women with COVID-19 gaps on their CVs will go a long way to avoid the pandemic penalty. These assurances include transparency around gender pay gap reporting and published figures on the gender split of those applying for and being offered promotions.

The big test will not be around whether these shifts are sustainable long after the disappearance of COVID-19, but rather whether more law firms will continue to promote and embrace them to level the diversity playing field.

Resources

Podcast: Becoming a woman in leadership in law

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce speaks to Georgia Dawson, senior partner at Freshfields, to discuss Georgia’s journey to leadership and what she’s achieved in her first 100 days as senior partner.

Podcast: International Women’s Day 2021

Listen to our podcast as part of our programme of events to mark International Women’s Day in March 2021, in which Law Society chief executive Paul Tennant speaks to I. Stephanie Boyce and managing director at Thomson Reuters, Lucinda Case, about gender equality in the legal profession.

Read our resources on Women in Leadership in Law

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

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