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‘Law is changing for the better’: 3 firms on their parental leave policies

Better parental leave policies mean increased retention and promotion of female lawyers; these firms have found.

user iconLauren Croft 25 July 2022 Big Law
‘Law is changing for the better’: 3 firms on their parental leave policies
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Earlier this month, the 2021 Annual Profile of Solicitors in NSW was released, revealing a growing legal profession that’s increasingly made up of people from culturally diverse backgrounds, as well as a growing majority of women and younger practitioners.

The new research revealed that in NSW, a total of 37,186 solicitors held a practising certificate as of October 2021, up from 35,709 in the previous year, representing a  4 per cent growth. Since 1997, the number of solicitors holding an NSW practising certificate has grown from 13,409 to 37,186, an increase of 177 per cent.

But despite female solicitors outnumbering their male counterparts in the legal profession in NSW for the fifth consecutive year, the gender pay gap still exists across the profession.

 
 

Overall, male solicitors had been admitted in NSW for longer than female solicitors. Half of all males had been admitted for 15 years or more as at 31 October 2021 (51 per cent), compared to over a third of females (36 per cent) — showing that more female lawyers are still leaving the profession earlier than men, likely during their childbearing years.

Following the release of the report, Lawyers Weekly spoke to three different firms on what their parental leave entitlements encompass — and how important these have been for their staff.

Ashurst currently offers 26 weeks of fully paid leave to staff, irrespective of gender, which launched in July 2021.  

The policy also includes pregnancy loss provisions that comprise two weeks of paid leave for anyone who suffers a pregnancy loss, whether it happens directly to them, their partner or their surrogate mother, plus an additional five days for related appointments.

Global co-head of inclusion, diversity and belonging Kate Sowden told Lawyers Weekly that whilst parental leave entitlements are “one piece of the puzzle” in attracting and retaining female staff, the launch of FamilyCare at the firm has also been extremely valuable.

“The suite of initiatives we offer sees us align with our goal of being the most progressive law firm, whilst putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do. We recognise the diversity of family life and strive to offer consistent, market-leading support across all of our global offices. We’re pleased that FamilyCare has helped attract and convert a number of key placements, including men, into our firm. Though we know that attracting and retaining women is also reliant on other factors which foster true flexibility and support, as well as gender representation and equity,” she said.

“Our parental leave offering provides parents more flexibility and we encourage our people to use the leave in a way that works best for their family — for example, leave can be taken in one consecutive block, two blocks or may incorporate a fixed term part time arrangement. Flexibility is a key lever for men’s participation in ‘sharing the care’ and we are pleased to see more men and non-birth parents taking up the full amount of leave, and this is something we encourage.”

Similarly, Macpherson Kelley offers 20 weeks of paid parental leave for the primary carer, which includes superannuation contributions on both paid and unpaid leave — something which national HR manager Olivia Holmes said was becoming increasingly popular amongst male staff as well as female staff.

“We are seeing change with the number of males taking up the full and partial amount of parental leave. We still have a long way to go for this to be the norm but post pandemic, more fathers are seeking greater flexibility to have time with their children,” she said.

“Without doubt parental leave policies and entitlements impact staff attraction and retention. While the updates to our parental leave policy are only a few months old, we have already received positive feedback on the policy during the talent acquisition process. It has also been particularly satisfying to hear the impact these policies have on so many of our employee families — both around fertility support and parental leave.”

Clayton Utz has also recently launched a 26-week paid parental leave program — and has removed the distinction between primary and secondary carers and offered parents greater flexibility as to when they access the paid leave, which can be taken over two years.

This news follows the unveiling of a senior parental leave program at the firm, which currently pays superannuation on paid and unpaid parental leave and provides support for senior parental leavers — something that director of diversity and inclusion Alison Woolsey said will help encourage flexible working for parents of all genders.  

“There are undoubtedly a few things at play in terms of gender differences in how men and women access flexible work options. We know that, traditionally, more women than men have tended to take on the role of primary caregiver to children, which means they’re more likely to need a flexible work arrangement. There’s also arguably been a bit of a stigma in the past, particularly for men, as to working part-time and how that might be perceived in terms of your professional commitment,” she said.

“That’s why our new parental leave policy is gender neutral and removes the historical ‘primary and secondary caregiver’ distinction. Like any employer, we want to encourage greater flexibility in how our working parents can access leave, which in turn we hope will mean more women find it a bit easier to balance their work and caregiving commitments. We also know that access to paid parental leave and flexible work are key drivers of gender equality and women’s workforce participation.”

These kinds of initiatives are important to achieving gender equity within law firms — and Ms Sowden said that Ashurst has now set new gender targets; aiming to have 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and 20 per cent flexible (women, men or non-binary) representation at partnership and senior leader level by 2026.

“We are committed to improving gender equity and balance within the firm. Women make up over half of our business and over half of law graduates each year. We know it is critical we retain and nurture this talent by providing opportunities to develop and thrive. A good parental leave policy is a key part of that, but only one piece of the puzzle. Attracting, retaining and progressing women in our firm relies on many other factors, including genuine flexibility, career development and support, and providing safe, inclusive and sustainable working environments. Fostering female talent to increase representation throughout all levels of the firm is something we are committed to achieving,” she explained.

We now have 50 per cent of our global executive team and over 60 per cent of our global business services roles being female — both of which have improved markedly from five years ago. This has been a catalyst for change at every level within the firm, with diverse perspectives creating better outcomes for our people and clients. Our approach is also reflected in our promotions to partnership, which are consistently around or above 50 per cent women.”

For Macpherson Kelley, their current workforce is 65 per cent women and 35 per cent men, with their principal lawyers being 37 per cent women. In addition, half of their managing principal lawyers are female, and 60 per cent of their 2022 promotions round were female staff. Whilst this is a good starting point, Ms Holmes said that the firm is looking to grow these numbers in the next five years.

“We know there is an overrepresentation of women in part time roles within the legal profession, which is largely to do with a higher demographic of women taking on the primary carer role. While this is the situation now, we firmly believe Macpherson Kelley can play a leading role in driving change by allowing our staff to work flexibly rather than reducing their hours. In recent times, we have seen an increase to male solicitors requesting to work part-time, proof that progress is being made,” she said.  

“Our firm has seen both men and women take up our Flex+ policy which accommodates staggered working hours, working from home, and part-time arrangements. The other side to this issue is bias and the burden carried by (primarily) women to take on the brunt of child caring duties. In consultation with our DEI committee, our HR team is rolling out a series of resources and educational seminars that address issues such as unconscious bias, gendered stereotypes and female leadership which are set to include reflections from staff and external specialists.”

Clayton Utz has also chosen to implement a number of initiatives to retain and support their female staff and working parents, added Ms Woolsey.

“Looking at specific support to retain women: we focus on sponsorship (alongside mentorship) — particularly important for women who want to pursue partnership. And we’re engaging directly with clients on this too,” she said.  

“We’re also continuing to focus on education around managing unconscious bias at different stages of career progression, ensuring gender balance in terms of the people we put forward for client opportunities and tenders and generally encouraging our women to take up opportunities to promote their capabilities externally, including taking part in panels and presenting or speaking at events.”

And Ms Holmes said that whilst women have historically left the profession to have children, the industry — and the firms within it — are changing for the better.

“Historically, the profession has been dominated by male practitioners, especially within leadership positions, with many females dropping out of the profession in their childbearing years. While the scales have since tipped, we need to make sure that our policies and initiatives support women in all stages of their career — through to leadership,” she said.

“Flexible working arrangements and inclusive policies are just the start. We will know we have made a difference when we have equal gender representation in leadership. At Macpherson Kelley, we are introducing initiatives such as women in leadership mentoring that will support our female lawyers to achieve their personal and professional goals. Law is changing for the better and we want to help force the change.”

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