Flex appeal â€“ do new 'family-friendly' policies go far enough?
Foreword: November 2021
We have a ‘women in the law’ thread running through this month’s SJ, so thought it only right that the foreword be written by SJ’s very own women in the law – features and opinion editor and mature pupil barrister, Chaynee Hodgetts, and news editor and non-practising solicitor, Suzanne Townley.
Chaynee spent over a decade as a law lecturer, before moving across to practice – now working as a mature second six pupil barrister with Nexus, the Chambers of Michael Mansfield QC (and continuing some academic tinkering!).
Suzanne spent 12 years as a commercial solicitor, both in private practice and in house, before swapping commercial contracts for freelance legal writing and a microbakery.
Natalie Runyon’s article ‘Smash and stay? Women and firms’ ‘glass ceiling’ (p13) addresses the age-old question of why there are so many promising female junior lawyers in the profession, but so few in senior roles across many of the world’s leading firms. She asks, what are the obstacles preventing more women from progressing to the most senior ranks in private practice, particularly in larger firms? And what can be done about it?
Certainly, this trend seems to have been reflected in Suzanne’s trainee cohort. There were seven women and three men in her intake at a large, national firm. All seven women have left private practice, either to work in house, in an alternative structure on a self-employed basis or have left the law altogether. Two of the men remain with the firm in senior positions, while the other is in a senior role at a similar firm.
So, why is this? One could assume having children may be a factor, but only around half of the female cohort have children, so is there something else at play?
On the topic of children, Dana Denis-Smith (p28) assesses the raft of new ‘family friendly’ policies recently rolled out by top firms, such as financial support with IVF and enhanced parental leave in the first year.
But, is there something slightly unsettling about some of these policies? Are employees being encouraged to delay starting a family, lulled into a potentially false sense of security by a firm-funded IVF ‘safety net’ to fall back on?
Parental leave policies seem to be very focused on the first year of a child’s life and as any parent will tell you, this is a challenging time. However, it doesn’t really get any easier – should firms be offering support in the longer term?
We’re all aware of the positive impact covid-19 has had on attitudes towards remote and flexi-working. However, on p32, Katy Meves considers whether women could actually come off worse post-pandemic, due to certain roles traditionally fulfilled by women, such as secretarial support, being made obsolete by workers utilising tech-based solutions from home.
Chaynee’s recent experiences with the courts’ use of cloud video platform and in-person hearings (or sometimes both at once, in the form of ‘hybrid’ hearings) have led us to reflect upon the extent to which remote working is fully possible in legal practice – and whether its potential for success and sustainability is contingent upon practice area (with, for instance, civil having much more scope for this than magistrates’ court work).
The spectre of extended opening hours, and many courts, at least in crime, returning to in-person hearings requiring attendance, revived many questions as to the reality of working mothers (and parents generally) in the justice system – and the support available for those who can’t work remotely.
Yet, the justice system was in a state pre-pandemic – with practitioners (parents or not) feeling both the pressure and the pinch. In our return to reality, this pressure has only been condensed and compounded by covid-19 delays. So perhaps, in the rush to get back to normal, we should consider which bits of normal are worth going back to…?
Suzanne Townley and Chaynee Hodgetts