Blog: The Mother Trap

The Mother Trap

Much has been written on the challenges of being both a mother and retaining your career. The legal industry in particular, can make this a difficult road to tread. The years that need to be dedicated to training, to building your expertise and establishing your career coincide with those that are, for most women, their most fertile years. Not only that, but success at the highest levels in the legal profession is highly dependent on your network and connections, bonds that require substantial amounts of time and attention to both forge and maintain. The industry is renowned for its long-hours working culture, with “all-nighters” being regarded almost as a badge of honor. Role-models for different ways of working have been scarce, particularly in law firms, and it is therefore no surprise that only 31% of partners in firms in England and Wales are women, despite 60% of new entrants to the profession each year identifying as female (Law Society, 2019). 

“Admiring the problem” gets women nowhere, so what are the practical steps that the industry and individuals can take to do away with the “mother trap”? There are three stakeholder groups who need to take action, and the answers are more simple than they might at first appear. 

Taking action at the top

Research by Thomson Reuters TWILL programme found that of the actions taken by firms that most strongly correlate with greater retention of women and progress to partnership, three relate to leadership; leaders who make gender diversity a priority, board-level representation for diversity and low tolerance of behaviours that run counter to inclusive practices. Measures they found get results include ensuring that matter teams and RFPs are gender-balanced. Leaders also have a role to play in making sure that women and men have the practical support they need to balance work life and family commitments. Calling-out and refusing to tolerate out-of-date attitudes and working practices can drive real change. 

Changing men’s consciousness

Whether it’s in the home or at work, men have a role to play in supporting women’s career advancement. Eve Rodsky in her book Fair Play identifies the additional “cognitive labour” that women are responsible for in disproportionate numbers. This additional “worry work” of keeping track of all the work that needs to be done for a family to function leads to increased stress, tiredness and associated health problems and acts as a disincentive for women to pick up greater responsibilities at work. Sharing the mundane work of life and family administration, is essential to enable a dual-career family.

Similarly, more men need to act as champions for women in the industry. More senior managers (who in law firms are largely men) need to be open to different (flexible) ways of working, career breaks and job shares, for women and for men. They also need to learn to think about the potential of everyone in their teams, rather than offering opportunities and support to those who shout the loudest or remind them the most of their younger selves. Sponsorship, the practice of advocating for another’s career success, is too often bestowed with little conscious thought and women are left out.

Finding the path that works for you

The good news is that the legal industry is more open today than ever before to working mothers. For those who want to stay with a law firm, managers are increasingly open to four-day weeks or “one day a week at home” arrangements, which can help make more space for family commitments. There are also a raft of alternatives. Building your career in-house can be equally rewarding, with (slightly) less onerous hours. Legal service providers such as my own company, Obelisk Support, offer new ways to work flexibly or even remotely, without committing to full-time hours. 

The industry is also beginning to understand that the traditional linear career journey from trainee to partner is less appealing than it was. Men and women, parents and the child-free, increasingly want more options. As our lives become longer, our careers become more fluid and career breaks or changes of direction are more common. Firms and companies are waking up to the fact that taking a break to focus on family (or anything else) doesn’t mean women no longer have anything to offer in the workplace.

Looking at those women who have reached the very top of the profession through our “First 100 Years” project, a common thread is their tenacity and refusal to be constrained by convention. As well as practical steps to balance both motherhood and career, it’s important to connect emotionally to the idea that it is possible to enjoy both simultaneously even though you might sometimes feel as though you are doing neither of them well enough. As lawyers, we are trained to aspire for perfection. The reality is that both parenting and legal work are messy, imperfect states and most of the time good really is good enough.

Pick up Obelisk Support’s guide to returning to work in the legal industry here for more tips and inspiration. 

Dana Denis-Smith is CEO of Obelisk Support, the flexible legal services provider. She also founded the “First Hundred Years” and “Next Hundred Years” projects to celebrate and further the position of women in the legal industry.