Morna Ronnie, Head of Programmes at Back in Business, talks about closing the skills gap, increasing diversity and encouraging those returning to the legal profession.

Where is the gap?

Recent UK-wide research, which was featured in an FT.com report on 2 January 2020, summarised that women are still sorely under-represented at partner level in law firms and that progress in redressing the balance is also very slow. Looking at the number of women in senior roles, combining figures for both salaried and equity partners, the average split UK-wide was 23.5% female and those females will typically be paid less than men at the same level.

Of course, gender isn’t the only factor to consider when seeking to create a truly diverse workforce but if the right practices are put in place to tackle this challenge then there will surely be a knock-on effect in increasing applications from other underrepresented groups.

We know that the biggest challenge occurs when an individual takes a career break and according to a recent CV Library survey the No. 1 reason for taking a career break is to look after children.  There have been positive steps forward with regard to shared parental leave but in the vast majority of cases the mother will have a longer career break than their partner. And often these can last several years. 

Returning to work

So, what are the challenges in returning from a career break? What can a firm do to help address these?

After a break of any significant length the individual needs to understand what their “new normal” is. They may have a different view of where their career sits in terms of their daily priorities but that doesn’t mean they are not still ambitious.

The biggest issue particularly for those with a longer than average break is confidence. They can have doubts about whether they can still do what they used to do.  They may feel that some of their knowledge and skills are rusty.  They may be concerned about how they will fit back into the team. 

The second biggest stumbling block is flexibility.  When caring for other people, particularly children, things can and do go wrong, people get ill, travel is disrupted, appointments must be attended in traditional working hours. Even though this affects most people at some stage, it can be easy to feel that you are not pulling your weight; that you are being judged for attending to these matters. 

How to support returners

To support with confidence, firms should put themselves in the returner’s shoes:

  • Be genuine about wanting to attract returners
  • Demonstrate a culture which supports this
  • Think about your attraction strategy i.e. where are you advertising, what wording are you using?
  • A strong and welcoming onboarding process will also be crucial with a mentor and buddy offered to the returner. as well as information being provided on any other employee support groups and activities
  • Have returner champions throughout the firm

With regard to flexibility:

  • Avoid presenteeism and reward on output
  • Have strong senior role models, male and female, who work flexibly
  • Be loud and vocal about case studies and successes in working flexibly
  • Analyse what is not serving you as a firm, what is outdated, what do other firms appear to do better than yours, what small steps could you take towards these aims?

By adopting some of these techniques firms can genuinely help to move the sector forward with regard to closing skills gaps and increasing diversity. 

And finally let’s not forget to focus on inclusion as well as diversity – simply put, once they have accepted your invitation to the party don’t forget to ask them to dance!

Back in Business unites professionals returning to the workplace with companies seeking new talent.

Back in Business | Return to Work

Taken a career break? Or know someone else who has and is looking to re-enter the profession?
Back in Business is accepting applications for their legal returner programme in Glasgow and Edinburgh