Matthew Kay considers practical help for working parents in the legal sector
Train strikes kicking off the new year meant for many, 2023 has begun by working from home. And with many school children still on their holidays, this may have prompted lockdown flashbacks for working parents, navigating children and a busy inbox at the kitchen table. We all know that since the pandemic, firms, by and large, have become more flexible places to work, with most now offering hybrid working options. We also all know that on the whole, a more flexible working environment benefits parents, as they can accommodate all facets of their busy lives more easily.
Not a panacea
However, flexible working shouldn’t be seen as a panacea for working parents – especially when working mothers in law, in particular, are still reporting a very difficult juggling act regarding their home and work lives. Research from the Next 100 Years Project has found 84 per cent of UK mothers working in the law still find it difficult to balance working life with the demands of being a mother. This begs the question that, post-pandemic, shouldn’t things be better? How are we still in this position where mothers in the legal profession aren’t being supported? As with many problems in the workplace, new policies, procedures and initiatives are implemented to solve the issues, but these often only work as a tick-box exercise, rather than truly offering support and a new way of working. Put simply, initiatives without integrity don’t work. For example, what use is a flexible working policy when the MD of a company openly says they don’t believe the business can be productive unless people are in the office? Or a firm that says it supports working parents, but rewards those subscribing to a long-hours culture and encourages presenteeism?
Parenting in law
At Vario, we’ve long championed flexibility and in the last two years, we’ve seen more and more lawyers choosing to go freelance, so they have true control over their careers and the hours they work. Often this is due to disillusionment around the ‘traditional’ firm culture and promises, postcovid 19, of more flexibility and agility, which often ended up being little more than window dressing. To support all working parents, it’s important that firms encourage their lawyers to talk openly (and loudly) about their role as a parent and how this impacts their working life. Of course, this will have more impact if those higher up the ladder do it too – for example, telling team members the reason they need to leave is to attend a parents evening, or that they’re working from home because their child is ill. It sounds simple, but encouraging an openness about these issues creates psychological safety, and lays the groundwork for a workplace culture which truly supports working parents and recognises the day-to-day challenges. Creating support groups for parents within the firm can also be a great way for those struggling to ‘have it all’ share their experiences and perhaps speak to those with older children and know it can get a little easier (or the new challenges to be aware of) .
Supporting any of these initiatives, however, needs to be a solid approach to gender diversity and a flexible working policy which is mindful of individuals’ caring responsibilities. This is more important than ever, as we’re seeing more of the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ in work than before – these middle-aged workers who have both elderly parents and young children to look after. As the BBC reported, we’re also seeing a new phenomenon of ‘triple decker sandwiches’ – those in their 60s who help care for their grandchildren to support their children, while also looking after elderly parents. These types of carers are generally rising in number, as people live longer and leave having children to later in life. This is a trend which firms need to be aware of, and ensure these people are truly supported in work to avoid a burnt-out and frazzled workforce, or a talent drain.
Matthew Kay is partner and head of Pinsent Masons Vario pinsentmasons.com/solutions/varioTags:
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