Managing maternity properly in the current unstable climate provides opportunities for long term business development

“Client numbers are falling, clients’ budgets are dropping, we have made redundancies and restructured. Then two major fee earners in our most profitable team announce that they are pregnant. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Did this sound familiar in 2009?

For those women going on maternity leave in 2009 it was equally uncomfortable. On one hand you were lucky to be out of the office doom and gloom, but on the other, would they forget about you in the restructure? You were even more likely to have a new boss, which didn’t help the communication process, and the familiar faces in your team had changed. Some therefore chose to return early, or felt they had to make up the household income deficit.

“By 2011 we predict half the solicitors in Scotland will be women, and they will become the majority over the years immediately following. It’s vital that law firms think of the potential implications based on trend data.”

Neil Stevenson, Director of Representation and Professional Support, Law Society of Scotland

Some companies seek to address maternity and returning to work issues to ensure that the needs of the business and the employee are reviewed and improved upon. So far, however, less than 10% of UK companies offer any support, leading to some 20% of women changing jobs within 18 months of returning and others feeling demotivated and undervalued on their return.

Shared responsibility

The role of HR in managing expectations and providing support during the unsettling period of maternity is obvious, and yet often underutilised by both staff and their managers alike.

“Using your HR department to offer a different perspective when problem solving, can be useful. There may be other options which you or your manager/partner hadn’t thought of which have worked well in other areas of the business.”

Ashlie Turner, HR Manager, Tods Murray

However it’s not just HR’s responsibility.

“I don’t think this is just a job for the HR team, but something that everyone in the firm needs to be involved in. Having a team structure in place and encouraging team working where there is acknowledged sharing of responsibility for cover is one of the best things a firm can do to support working mothers, so that it’s not up to the mother to ask for a favour but part of the firm’s structure of how work gets done. Team members providing cover for each other in a variety of circumstances and having an understanding of each other’s work, all add to the benefit of the clients.”

Linda Urquhart, Chief Executive, Morton Fraser

Mentoring and coaching tools

“The best support a firm can give to working mothers is an understanding of the challenges, advice, particularly from other working mothers in the firm, sharing information about experience, and a willingness to be flexible.’’

Linda Urquhart

Support can be both internal and external. Senior partner David Morley from Allen & Overy, quoted in The Times last month: “Many women leave in their early 30s, on the verge of becoming partners, after deciding that starting a family is inconsistent with the demands of commercial law at the top level. Allen & Overy analysed the career tracks of its best-performing associates and found that its brightest young women lawyers left on the verge of partnership at twice the rate of their male colleagues.”

The firm was one of the first practices to provide maternity coaching in response to this issue.

Providing the opportunity to reflect proactively on decisions through coaching is currently being piloted by Tods Murray in Scotland. Maternity coaching is a simple tool to implement. It is confidential, creating few conflicts of interests when delivered by experts from outside the firm.

Management training provided internally is beneficial to developing communications skills. Women surveyed by Working Families said the biggest factor contributing to a “good” return to work was their relationship with their boss. Unfortunately, over 30% of them felt this relationship had deteriorated since they became pregnant. Perception will become reality unless this perception is challenged.

Maternity mentoring has also been successful in providing networks within or outwith organisations, such as the Scottish Parliament’s professionally accredited maternity mentoring scheme.

Being consistent throughout the practice as to how policies are implemented is equally important. Inconsistencies between relationships build resentment and issues can become personal. HR is crucial here to ensure that objectivity remains and doesn’t depend on the manager’s own values on how to achieve a work-life balance.

“Keeping in touch” days

More employees are using their 10 Keeping in Touch (KIT) days, but many are still unaware of what they are and how they could be used to benefit both parties.

“Talk about KIT days early, detailing what they are and how they don’t affect maternity leave benefits. Agree how they want to keep in touch: monthly phone calls, email updates, by post. Remember to advise them of any significant changes promptly.  “Consider using them to help with holiday cover – whilst helping an individual it can also assist the firm.”

Angie D’Andrea, Practice Manager at TC Young

Flexibly family friend

Male and female employees actively look for practices who offer flexibility, so offering more creative ways to work flexibly offers a competitive advantage to attract the best. However what do you really mean by “flexible working”? Part time, reduced hours, compressed hours, home working, annualised hours, or just working longer hours when there are deadlines?

Certainly this year has been a good one for part time workers, as many companies have asked employees to reduce hours rather than incur the longer term costs of redundancies. Guess who snapped up many of these opportunities? For those practices who weren’t familiar with managing a flexible workforce, they had an opportunity to learn fast.

The biggest drawbacks appear to be perceptions regarding part time workers. A Government survey of 1,400 fathers found that 40% of fathers thought that part time workers were perceived to be less committed to the job. This may contribute to the fact that in 2005 only 9.2% of equity partners were part time.

“If you feel your colleagues don’t support part time working and it’s something you believe is important to your return, offer it as a pilot of three months. That way both parties can see how it works in practice, tackling issues as they arise and finding alternatives during the trial. This gives both parties the opportunity to create a win-win situation.”

Ashlie Turner

Flexibility is particularly important during a mother’s return, as indicated by the Working Families survey, where all those women who had a phased return felt they had a “good” or “very good” return.

“Allowing a phased return, starting on restricted hours for the first few weeks to ease into the working pattern and giving a chance to get the baby settled into childcare and a new routine for the whole family, may help with the return, whether the mother intends to return to work full or part time.”

Linda Urquhart

Baby time bomb

Who knows what challenges the next 10 years will bring the law practice, so let’s work on what we do know. The gender split has changed and dependants are going to influence the wants, desires and culture of the law leaders of the future. Reliability, commitment, and knowledgeable partners will be even harder to find unless this brain drain is addressed now.

“It’s up to businesses to decide the right solution for them, but the Society can assist in promoting debate and best practice, and promote innovations in the profession as part of our reputational work around lawyers.”

Neil Stevenson

Sam (Samantha)Pringle is Director of Beeleaf Consulting, supporting organisations to address equality in the workplace and overcome female gender barriers.


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