Parental leave ‘kiss of death’ for female lawyers

A survey has found that taking parental leave is a career-killer for women in law firms, with a shocking majority saying those who take the time out are less likely to make partner

Taking parental leave is a career ‘kiss of death’ for women in law firms according to a new Australian survey that found a huge 75 per cent of respondents there believe female lawyers who take the time out are less likely to make partner than those who don’t.

But would these results be the same in New Zealand? In light of this 2014 InfoTrack/Janders Dean survey, NZ Lawyer has asked a group of female lawyers here what they think.
Among our counterparts across the ditch, an overwhelming 85 per cent of respondents believe there is scope within the industry to innovate in addressing gender diversity.

One comment particularly captured the general consensus there: “Australian firms often trumpet themselves as being good employers for women, [but] in reality roles taken by women have been the first to go when costs need to be managed.”
InfoTrack CEO Stephen Wood told NZ Lawyer that he was surprised about how strong the perceptions in the profession were about women in the legal workplace.
“I have no doubt that some firms have in place the policies, practices and mind-set to promote talented women, but whatever the reality – the perception is strong that taking parental leave is the kiss of death for women aspiring to partnership,” he says.
“So if a firm is committed to nurturing their best and brightest through to partnership – including women who have taken parental leave – firms need to get a lot better at communicating this to their constituency including their own people, clients and the broader community.”
Wood adds that while many large companies have sophisticated programmes in place to identify and mentor talent through to the leadership of the organisation, he doesn’t think this is common practice in law firms.

DLA Phillips Fox partner Tracey Cross has recently returned from the DLA Piper Global Women’s Leadership Summit in Chicago.

She told NZ Lawyer that organisations need to recognise work life balance and flexibility as a recruitment proposition, and particularly one that affects women.

When Cross came back to work from parental leave eight years ago as a new partner in the NZ office, she says she was able to work flexibly, although she admits that it’s not always easy.
“We are on a journey and like most law firms we still have some distance to travel. But with strategic approaches within our geographic regions, we’re making progress,” she says.

The firm has introduced have introduced a number of initiatives to further diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace, including the Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) programme.

“At DLA taking parental leave is not the ‘kiss of death’. These days with technology allowing remote access, firms are able to provide more flexibility. Currently 53 per cent of our senior associate/special counsel group have flexible working arrangements.”

In fact, in January 2013, the first woman from the firm was promoted to the position of Americas co-managing partner. At the time, she was one of a sad approximately 6 per cent of women managing partners within the Am Law 200, says Cross.

Chapman Tripp partner Paula Brosnahan acknowledges that many New Zealand lawyers would agree with the views expressed by InfoTrack/Janders Dean survey respondents.

Her own experience doesn’t match that, however. She told NZ Lawyer that she was actually promoted to principal in the firm’s resource management team while she was pregnant with her first child. She was then promoted to partner while on parental leave with her second child.

At Chapman Tripp, women made up 64% of legal promotions in 2014, a huge leap from 35% in 2007, she says.

“To change the profession’s perceptions of parental leave, law firms need to lead from the top and need to lead by example… I would also like to see the dialogue around parental leave become one that focuses on both parents, rather than just on its impact on the mother’s career.”

Minter Ellison Rudd Watts senior associate Julia Batchelor-Smith says although diversity is a key current concern for all major law firms, it’s one thing to pay lip service, and another to put the words into action.
She agrees with Brosnahan that there needs to be a genuine commitment from the top to foster and promote female talent. She feels her firm definitely does that.

“In my view, many of the issues faced by women are tied to inherent facets of the way large law firms work. For example, the traditional charge to partnership often coincides with a woman’s childbearing years. And there’s an ‘all in or all out’ mentality – which means that many women become despondent and feel precluded from aspiring to partnership after having kids (or in some instances, before),”  Batchelor-Smith says.

“It may be that it’s not viable for you in the short term – but perhaps it’s an option in the future. I think women are generally bad at identifying, and then communicating, their short, mid and long-term career goals. Don’t assume that your firm knows what they are. It’s a two-way street. You need to figure out your aspirations yourself… and then tell the people that need to know.”

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