Maternity leave

Husnara Begum, career coach and outplacement specialist, explores many of the challenges around maternity leave for female lawyers.

It is widely accepted that combining a legal career with raising a family is extremely challenging, with even some of the most organised and resilient women struggling to stay afloat. So it is no wonder that so many female solicitors leave the profession after having children.

Unfortunately, there really is no one-size-fits-all solution for coping with the transition from lawyer to mother, and then successfully combining the two. As one female lawyer I interviewed puts it, 'You’re never going to get the balance exactly right, and you’ll definitely have to make plenty of compromises and even some major sacrifices along the way.'

In this article, I look at how to plan for your maternity leave and also for returning to work, as well as the legal obligations on both you and your employer.

Is there an ideal time in my career to have a baby?

This is arguably one of the biggest dilemmas facing many female solicitors, despite much effort being made by legal employers over the past few years to enable more women to fulfill their potential at work.

Maternity frequently coincides, or clashes, with a critical point in a woman’s career: when a female solicitor is at senior associate level and may be aiming to be put on partner track or to move into a more senior in-house position. This will be a time when a female lawyer yearns for career progression, but may also need a more sustainable work-life balance.

So is there an ideal PQE level at which to start a family? Unfortunately, no. Opinion on the timing of pregnancy was divided among the women I interviewed for this article. One interviewee, a partner in the London office of a well-known commercial law firm who is pregnant with her third child said that planning for maternity leave was more straightforward when she had her first baby because at the time she was still an associate. This time there are important considerations that associates, especially more junior ones, wouldn't need to worry about. The main one is handing over clients to fellow partners. For some female partners, this can be quite awkward. After all, what is your fellow partner going to gain by baby-sitting your clients while you’re at baby yoga? Then there’s the added worry of your clients being poached by the very partner whom you trusted to look after them during your maternity cover.

But not everyone I spoke to agreed. Many still felt that having a baby too early in your career, especially before reaching at least two to three years’ PQE, would interfere with career progression, especially in private practice. As one of my interviewees put it, having a baby before you’ve developed a track record and good will from your employer can be very risky.

Another partner warned against falling pregnant when you are on the cusp of partnership – she waited until she was promoted before taking time off to have two children. She advised that, as a partner, you have much more control over your workload and working pattern, and to an extent you have also already proven yourself. She also admitted that the sheer effort and working hours she put in to get to partnership would have been virtually impossible to combine with looking after young children. Saying that, older children have different but often equally demanding needs, so I am sure many of you reading this article will feel that looking after them can be just as challenging.

What are my legal rights?

I am not an employment law specialist so I won't dedicate too much of this article to discussing the statutory rights afforded to pregnant women. Below is a brief summary of what you should be aware of. I strongly recommend supplementing this with your own research and by reading your employer's maternity policies, which will differ between firms.

  • Notify your firm or in-house legal team of your pregnancy by the end of the 15 weeks before the expected week of birth. You can start your maternity leave any time in, or after, the 11th week before your baby is due.
  • You have a statutory right to paid time off during working hours for the purposes of receiving antenatal care, regardless of hours worked or your length of service.
  • If you become unwell during your pregnancy, any sick pay received must not be less than the sick pay given to a non-pregnant colleague.
  • Any pay rise or benefit increases that have been awarded to other employees during your period of absence must also be given to you, if applicable to your role and grade. Any pay rise will also retrospectively affect the amount of statutory maternity pay you receive.
  • You are entitled to up to 10 'keeping in touch' (KIT) days. Try to use these days for the purposes of catching up with work, attending a seminar, or other forms of training. There is no obligation for the employer to offer KIT days, and there is no obligation for the employee to undertake them.
  • Women on maternity leave continue to accrue their statutory paid annual leave entitlement under the Working Time Regulations 1998. The current entitlement is 5.6 weeks per year for full-time employees (pro rata for part-time employees), which can include bank holidays. If you are not able to use all your accrued annual leave in the holiday year when you are off on maternity leave, then you must be able to carry over any accrued but untaken statutory holiday.
  • Any dismissal related to pregnancy, birth or maternity leave will be automatically unfair. If you resign or are dismissed after the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth, you will still be entitled to receive maternity leave and pay.
  • If a redundancy situation occurs while you are on maternity leave, you are entitled to be offered a suitable alternative vacancy, to start immediately after your existing contract ends. An employee who is pregnant or on maternity leave is given preferential treatment in respect of being offered suitable alternative employment.
  • You have the right to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, but you must give eight weeks’ notice if you wish to return to work early.
  • You are entitled to return to the same job in which you were employed prior to starting your maternity leave. If you have taken any additional maternity leave (up to an additional 26 weeks), the employer has more flexibility in offering you a suitable alternative role, instead of the same role, providing that the terms and conditions are no less favourable than your previous terms and conditions.
  • Parents of babies being born on or after 5 April 2015 will be able to share leave to care for their baby. Employed mothers will still be entitled to 52 weeks’ maternity leave, and must take the first two weeks off for recovery. The remaining 50 weeks can be split between both parents.

How and when do I break the news at work?

When you choose to tell your employer about your pregnancy is entirely up to you, provided you do it within the legal timeframe: by the end of the 15 weeks before your due date. Most expectant mums announce at the end of their first trimester, and after their all-important 12-weeks scan.

The advantage of breaking the news to your employer sooner rather than later is that the longer you and your employer have to plan for your maternity leave, the better for both sides. Your employer's duty of care towards you, in respect of maternity rights, does not kick in until they are privy to the news of your pregnancy. What’s more, if your pregnancy is difficult or you are experiencing issues with morning sickness, or require time out of your normal work schedule for antenatal appointments, the right level of support may be difficult to arrange if your employer is unaware of your pregnancy.

You can choose whether to inform your partner, head of department or HR first – you may even want to do it at the same time via an initial email, and then follow-up with a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible afterwards. The advantage of telling HR first is that they can set all the legal processes into motion, as well as liaise with relevant partners in your department. You may also want to tell your PA/secretary around the same time, because it's they who will be helping you to manage your diary etc.

Again, when and how you notify clients is also your choice, and will, of course, depend on your relationship with them, and the type of clients you typically work with. For example, if you represent a high volume of clients who do not give you any repeat business, then there’s arguably not much point in worrying about how they are going to react about you going on maternity leave – especially if the matter you are advising them on concludes prior to your time off. But for larger clients who do bring lots of work your way, breaking the news to them is naturally a much bigger deal.

The unasked question is, of course, what your intentions are once the baby is born. Are you planning to come back to work? If so, when? And do you want to work full or part-time? Do you want to carry on fee-earning? While new mums can and very often do change their minds on these questions, there are significant advantages to both sides if you outline your broad intentions sooner rather than later. How this conversation is received and managed sends strong signals to women about how they may be treated, confirming prevailing attitudes to working mothers and career prospects.

But it also works the other way around. Your attitude and behaviour towards work and colleagues throughout this important period will have a dramatic impact on how you are likely to be treated by your employer and the allowances above and beyond legal obligations that your line manager will be willing to make for you.

At what point in my pregnancy should I take maternity leave?

Some expectant mums decide to start maternity leave as late as possible, because they would rather have more time on the other side of pregnancy. But other factors to think about include how smoothly your pregnancy is going – if you are having ongoing health problems, it may be sensible to start your leave slightly earlier. Equally, if your workload simply becomes unbearable, then please listen to your body. Also, make sure that you build in, at the very least, some time to prepare for the birth, both physically and emotionally, by spending some quality time with those you love, including, if appropriate, your husband/boyfriend. And don’t forget other practicalities, such as getting the nursery decorated and your overnight bag packed.

How should I prepare for maternity leave?

Start planning early because your baby is unlikely to respect any schedules – it will come when it is good and ready. First, identify and deal with any matters that can be completed before your leave date. Then work out which ones will carry on during your maternity leave, and get relevant colleagues involved as soon as possible, allowing plenty of time for a proper handover.

Wind down you workload. But be careful not to do this too early, or indeed too speedily, as colleagues may feel that you are just dumping your work on them. Also, try to stay enthusiastic about work until your very last day, and do not use your pregnancy to turn matters away – unless, of course, it is too close to the start of your maternity leave or health problems are at play.

Get your paperwork in order and prepare detailed handover notes, which you should update regularly if appropriate. Notes should include contact details of all the main parties and their advisers, case histories and summaries, key deadlines etc.

Can I work flexibly when I come back?

For many female lawyers returning after maternity leave, part-time work might be an ideal. However, despite my best efforts to find woman who had successfully achieved this, I only managed to find one woman who is now working part-time in a fee-earning role. I therefore decided to scour the internet for some examples, and what I found was hardly a positive advert, either. I found several discussion threads on parenting websites, in which many of the contributors felt that fee-earning and part-time work simply do not mix, especially for transactional lawyers. The part-time solicitor I did track down said that working part-time has many challenges. For example, working Monday to Thursday will give you a longer weekend, but some clients may not want to wait three days for a reply. She switched to taking Wednesdays off, which she said is working a little better.

There are a number of different types of flexible working patterns that you may want to consider. The most common is working one or two days from home. Even if your employer agrees to you working from home one day a week, it is still advisable to have childcare in place to reduce inevitable disruptions.

Once you have thought about the type of work arrangement you would prefer, you should assess your role within your firm and practice area to see if what you do at work can be adapted in the way you require. You should bear in mind that you will be presenting your idea to your partners on this – so you may need to convince them that this arrangement can work for all sides. You should look at both the positive and negative aspects, and try to come up with a solution for any negatives that are likely to arise. This sort of arrangement takes time to adjust to, so you should review the arrangement periodically and not be afraid of adapting if necessary. Alternatively, you may decide against ‘formalising’ your flexible working pattern.

How should I prepare for coming back to work?

As the date for your return to work draws ever closer, get organised – just as you did when you started your maternity leave. Make sure you have a robust system of childcare in place. This should reduce some of the anxiety and worry you are likely to feel about being away from your little one(s). Flexible, or even multi-layered childcare is a must for any of you planning to return to work full-time – this is even more important if your partner also works long hours and you both have lengthy commutes.

Try to get your brain used to the idea of being away from your baby for prolonged periods. Your baby will also need plenty of time to adjust to being away from you – especially if, like many babies, they start to develop stranger anxiety.

There are also lots of practical considerations, such as getting the lowdown on any changes that may have arisen at your firm or company while you were away, including the addition of new staff, the roll-out a new IT system, or even changes in seating arrangements.

Meanwhile, those of you who have had a longer gap may want to enrol on a ‘returner course’, which are growing in popularity within the legal sector. The Law Society offers a returner course, open to both men and women, which aims to equip delegates with the tools and knowledge they require to re-enter the jobs market after an extended period away from practicing. Note, however, that this course does not offer any updates on black letter law.

Returning to work after maternity leave is not going to plain sailing by any stretch of the imagination. So try not to be too harsh on yourself, especially, for example, if you miss out on putting your baby to bed. In fact, try to make life simpler by bringing in as much outside help as your budget allows – a cleaner, for example. Online food shopping is also another time-saving tool. This will hopefully free you up to spend proper quality time with your family.