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Men, caring and parenting: The values ‘tug of war’ in law firms

There is a values-based “tug of war” in law firms between the older hierarchy of male partners and younger male partners and aspiring partners, writes Gerard Petersen.

user iconGerard Petersen 24 May 2023 Careers
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Differing values systems, including the desire for parental leave and shared caregiving, create tension around performance KPIs, promotion and remuneration.

The impacts are far-reaching and damaging, often felt most acutely in male-dominated, less progressive cultures.

Research and stigma


There is a real stigma attached to men, caregiving and parenting, which needs redress.

Melbourne University’s 2023 State of the Future of Work Report, led by Professor Leah Ruppanner, found “women and men caregivers are treated unfairly, and men caregivers report greater harassment and firings”.

“Men caregivers report they are treated unfairly at work (55 per cent) and experience workplace harassment (40 per cent),” it noted.

While this research covers all professions, the legal sector is clearly fighting its own values war on caregiving.

Parents and family advocacy organisation Parents at Work reports that 5 per cent of dads take paid parental leave in Australia even when primary carers leave is made available to them.

Chief executive Emma Walsh said that there is still a reluctance to use leave due to stigma, commenting on the legal sector: “There’s no doubt that for many of those who pursue a career in law, it has often meant having to make a choice between investing in work over family life — and the impact of this choice differs starkly by gender.”

“For men, it usually means sacrificing family time. For women, it usually means sacrificing career prospects after starting a family. The reality is it’s a shared problem that concerns everyone with men, women and children dealing with tough trade-offs all round.”

Older hierarchy v younger models

For aeons, male partner role models have been seen to sacrifice personal and family relationships on the altar of career survival and perceived career success.

Constant financial pressure to build and maintain a client base worthy of partnership and associated remuneration rewards dictated clients and work came first, everything else next.

For many men, this included their spouse and their career, children, and their own personal physical and mental self-care.

Consequently, in their eyes, promotion through the ranks is deemed achievable only by sweat equity and many life sacrifices to remain at the summit of success.

Many of these older partners are now 50-plus and sitting in the upper echelons of firm equity hierarchies in both large and small firms.

You will often hear mutterings from older male partners, “where have all the go-getters gone?” and “these up-and-comers are not willing to do what I did to get ahead”.

Others bemoan the younger generation needs to realise they can’t have it all and acquire the success they did with entitlements given on a silver platter.

But here’s the rub:

Younger partners and aspiring partners are looking through a very different prism in 2023 and hold a different values system about career and life success.

Less likely to look up to the older male hierarchy as role models, they envisage a different path to success. But of course, they still want the money!

Entitlements: Changing landscapes

Many younger male partners and aspiring partners who are fathers want to champion their spouse’s career, be deeply engaged in the lives of their spouse and children and be happy and healthy.

Rightly so, as they believe this to be an enabler of career and life success. Fatherhood often arrives at older ages and hence at the point of mid-careers. Add second marriages and families in the mix, and the landscape shifts greatly.

There are stellar examples of firms living their male parental values.

As reported in Lawyers Weekly, Rowan Kendall, senior associate from Ashurst, shared the benefits of taking full parental leave entitlements.

Parents at Work reported that Norton Rose Fulbright is “making parental leave for men easier than ever”. Both male and female senior partners encourage leave recognising the tacit long-term commercial and personal benefits.

In looking at this cynically, there appears to be an arms race unfolding among the bigger firms that arguably weaponise parental leave etc., as talent attraction and retention tools in the existing recruitment market war for talent. A war where the big firm balance sheet is a significant strategic advantage.

These entitlements are to be applauded and certainly look good on paper and in EVP public relations. But how is this playing out in reality?

Mixed messages

Despite beefed-up entitlements, a covert conflict can be faced by younger and aspiring partners. Many firms present confusing messages about how to successfully progress careers to partnership levels.

Often a firm’s outward cultural values espoused via beefed-up entitlements are not reflected in the internal lived culture or metrics by which their partnership performance is measured.

It’s evidenced when taking parental leave or requesting flexible caregiving arrangements.

A burden of guilt is felt under the stigma of not being seen as serious about career progression.

The creed is taking time off will damage the firm’s financial performance and individual business case. At a more sinister level, the fear is fellow partners may steal clients and thwart promotion and income.

Choosing whether to play firm politics to win social capital with the older, powerful cadre of male, less progressive partners places younger partners in significant conflict.

Ameliorating the tug of war

Generational values-based tension will continue to simmer quietly behind the scenes to varying degrees for some time yet. Significant steps to ameliorate include:

  • Both older and younger partners adopting empathy and self-awareness of the differing definitions of career and life success;
  • Acceptance that it is impossible to have it all 100 per cent of the time;
  • Realisation careers are a marathon, not a sprint;
  • Fearlessly honouring your values and what is important to you at different stages of career and life for sustainable high performance;
  • Understanding and acknowledging the financial equation and business model of your firm;
  • Less short-term greed and more longer-term vision; and
  • Open and courageous conversations about remuneration, titles and KPIs.
Lastly, summon individual and collective courage to ignore all stigma and focus on what is personally meaningful for success.

Gerard Petersen is the owner of The Business of You. He has been in the legal sector for 30 years as a lawyer, legal recruiter, career confidante and consultant.

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