Jennifer Liston-Smith

Being Family-Friendly in Law Firms Takes Unique Solutions

Jennifer Liston-Smith

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Keeping mum in law firms

'Up or out' in a partnership structure is part of the pruning process. Yet 60% of that upcoming talent being pruned almost out of existence raises questions.

Those questions have become louder in the last five to ten years and My Family Care has been busy asking and answering them, working as we do with two thirds of the Legal Week top 15 law firms and many others within the City and regionally.

Female talent is hot property in all sectors, given the string of research findings - and popular TV programmes (think Hilary Devey) - demonstrating the business benefits of gender diversity. Some brave legal firms have set targets for gender balance among partners and many have explored enabling factors, given the dawning awareness of the huge clash between the route to partnership and the window for childbearing.

Dads and carers

Others are waking up to the need to engage and recognise fathers and carers of adult dependants, and major firms now run dads' workshops, carers' advice sessions and provide online resources for families.

It's all about keeping and enabling the stars you have, when life pulls them in different directions. On the gender balance front, it is also true that - long term - working women benefit from care-giving being seen as something belonging to a wider part of the population.

Coaching in law firms

What works in maternity coaching?

It is evident that providing space, structure, a degree of mentoring and an intelligent, confidential sounding board through maternity coaching helps the expectant mum plan her leave and return more proactively.

It's even possible to improve the manager-individual communication by acting on one side of the conversation in strategic ways.

Leadership development in the legal sector

Senior associates embrace this rare opportunity to be honest and to plan the nuts and bolts of a good, profile-raising conversation.

Maternity coaching has a strong leadership development aspect and our coaches often find themselves drawing on "personal branding" tools when working with senior coachees in the legal sector.

Many firms provide a range of coaching approaches

Fee earners receive 1:1 coaching, while others are included in group coaching, online coaching or parents network seminars.

There is huge value in the "same boat" mentality that group events bring out and increasingly, there is a move towards creating places for knowledge to be shared: whether group coaching, internal maternity mentoring schemes, lunchtime seminars or firm-wide Keeping in Touch (KIT) days.

Naturally those firms which are serious also provide guidance and frameworks to managers, to address the other key player in the planning and communication process. And those who are really leading get one of the most respected partners in the firm to communicate to his or her peers about why this matters.

Making the practical side work

Beyond empowering the individual, generating networks and getting managers on board, there are parallel moves to make the practical side work.

Backup childcare and providing help in finding childcare have almost become business as usual in the biggest legal practices, as have robust technology systems for remote working and flexible working policies that position smart working as sound business sense rather than a special favour graciously bestowed.

And most firms have been well ahead of legislation in making sure flexibility is available to more than parents and carers. That said, many struggle to make it a reality, yet the seeds are there.

Then there are dozens of variations on staged or staggered returns, advice on using KIT days or holidays to ease up from part-time to full time, better discussions about utilisation and internal surveys on the best ways to arrange the maternity package. And that's before we get started on alternative career routes: options other than partnership and more flexible journeys toward being made up.

Like all law firms, we're unique...

What strikes us most is that it's all about starting from first principles. Those who work in law firms know there is enormous emphasis on two factors: generating consensus and having a unique culture.

It's no surprise that these hold true in becoming family-friendly. Firstly, real momentum comes when the partnership is bought in to the need to do something. Then it's possible to put in place multiple initiatives, which will always have a bigger impact when combined. Smart internal champions sometimes start the other way up; trialling small initiatives to demonstrate impact; but consensus is always the end game.

Secondly, like snowflakes, all law firms are unique (and this does turn out to be true): they will invariably craft their own highly tailored programme of interventions.

We work with a lot of law firms and no two have the same programme. Ask our Operations team about the attention to detail this requires! And ask me about the long hours that go into partnering to understand the culture and craft something to fit the needs.

Achieving culture change

So, we are equally as likely to hear: "You've been an integral part of the culture change we wanted to achieve" and as we are to be praised: "We chose to work with you because you understand us and are willing to work within the culture we have".

Of course, I've never seen a culture really stay the same over time, but the key point is to work with it and within it, while spotting influential people who are behaving in a positive, counter-culture, family-friendly way and collaring them in the corridor to become a role model or sponsor.

Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director of Coaching & Consultancy, My Family Care

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Regular work+family updates for
HR and diversity professionals.