How younger lawyers are seeking to redefine partnership — and family life

“Partnership is often assumed to have come at the expense of your personal life, such as not having children, or having them but constantly feeling the parental guilt that you aren’t seeing them enough. But changing attitudes towards part time and flexible working, and parental leave, mean that younger partners and would-be-partners are no longer making this assumption, or letting this assumption be the reality” says Jacqueline Mulryne, a London based Life Sciences Partner at U.S. firm Arnold & Porter.
Never before have such attitudes changed so rapidly.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced every lawyer and every law firm globally to seriously and properly adapt to a new way of working; one which respects the sanctity of family life and recognises the demands of how difficult achieving balance in both realms is.

Younger lawyers are bringing a more holistic view of work, family life, gender, sexual orientation and equality to the workplace. The result is that they are also bringing more balance to the realities of working life, and are less accepting of the old adage “but that is not how we did it”. A very real silver lining arising from the pandemic is that the previous generation of partners — who themselves have been catapulted into a very new and different way of working — have learnt that there is not just one way of working towards partnership and that there is not just one way to serve clients. That is not to say that work-life balance isn’t still likely to be an issue post pandemic and that the route to partnership will be made easier. Sacrifices will still be made, plans will be cancelled, and people will be let down. It is certainly not for everyone. But for women in particular who do want to make partnership, they are increasingly telling their partners: “If you want us to have children, we are both going to have to take on 50% of the childcare”. More male lawyers are telling their firms that they expect to take shared parental leave, even if this is not officially offered in their partnership contract and providing these developments are acknowledged and responded to, younger partners and in particular female partners, will finally have a voice to be heard; they’ll be given the recognition they deserve for having struggled silently for so long and they’ll be offered a platform from which they can properly participate.

Extended leave out of the office, for whatever reason, is always going to be a hard decision, and will always, to a certain extent, have an impact” in Jacqueline’s view but surely, if we can recover from the consequences of a global pandemic that has ravaged economies, businesses and families indiscriminately, lawyers and law firms can facilitate their partners returning to work after an extended period and the ‘recovery’ period will be relatively quick and painless. The choice is of course a personal one, doing what is right for you and your family, but the realities of partnership and law firm life mean that many would agree that taking a full year of parental leave is unlikely to be the optimal business development approach and may impact clients, rainmaking abilities and one’s profile in the firm. But more than ever before firms — and clients — are likely to be more understanding of such leave, and ultimately, six, nine or 12 months is not going to define your career, however much it feels like it at the time. And if it takes a bit longer to make partner, that may be the right decision for you; it doesn’t make you any less good at the job or any less able to succeed as a partner.

One, increasingly popular, option is to come back sooner and work flexibly in order to maintain your visibility. More couples taking shared parental leave and sharing childcare responsibility makes this possibility more of a reality. Another positive development to come out of the pandemic is the number of male lawyers that have been able to spend more time with their families, which is something many have reported wanting to continue in some meaningful form post pandemic.

Communication and flexibility is often key to making this work. Advances in technology and the connectivity of smartphone technology assist with this flexibility. Again, it is a pragmatic truth that creating the perception of always being available — and it is sometimes just a perception if you’re emailing a client from the school gates — really helps to keep clients happy and helps your career. There is of course a need for partners to be present in office hours in order to manage and supervise their teams, but in practice, many clients don’t care where you take a call, as long as the urgent issue is addressed. Dynamic and authentic attitudes are also key to making this work. It is important that men in law feel comfortable being open with their desire to be more visible at home and law firms must better embrace and publicise such initiatives. We are confident that post-pandemic this can and will happen.

We’re also hoping that this shift in attitudes as a result of the pandemic highlights the issues that can arise from taking too little parental leave. Parents (and mothers in particular) and their baby, may not be ready to part. The practicalities may not make this possible, and indeed, it may not be a decision that is in one’s control. In the office, being away for three months may mean work is not properly handed over, so in fact parents are working while on leave, and come back to a flurry of urgent deadlines, and end up working round the clock rather than spending down-time with their baby. This surely cannot be optimal for either work or home life.

Juggling will always be a reality for people with competing demands on their time. The new — Covid-19 induced — way of working will definitely have been a baptism of fire for many and for others it will have given them a very raw taste of just how hard the juggle (or rather struggle) is for those working from home whilst remaining heavily engaged with their children/dependants. It’s also made many realise how for too long the persistently heavy load is unsustainable (without seriously compromising one’s well being) because the legal industry has not provided sufficient support and resources to make the juggle manageable. In all cases, and whatever choice you make, it is also extremely important to have a good childcare support network in place in order to limit the panic of too much juggling as well as a law firm environment and infrastructure that actively supports those juggling home and work life.

People’s peak biological energy for child rearing can too easily coincide with the time when they’re likely to be at career peaks; law firms must recognise and respond to this. To the extent that it is within any of our control, some younger lawyers who know they want children are seeing early child-rearing as a way to cope with this collision. The alternative to front loading pregnancy, parental leave and the early days of child rearing is to front load partnership. Paradoxically, although partnership is seen as being far more demanding than in-house or PSL roles, it is actually far more flexible. Many partners are effectively working flexibly without officially being on flexible working schedules, because — for the most part — being a partner means control of your own diary and being judged on results rather than on hours in the office. However, because of the Covid-19 quarantine many lawyers — at all levels — have demonstrated that being judged on results rather than hours in the office is a productive and effective way to work, which builds goodwill and trust in teams and, it can serve clients just as well.

Parenting has always been and will always be very demanding as well as rewarding, and there will be times when one or other aspects of your life does, and has to, take priority. Support from your partner is of course vital when you’re a parent, but it’s equally important to know how they support your career. Jacqueline’s views that “it can be challenging for a young partner, who is in the habit of thinking that the solution to every problem is to work harder, and to control every aspect, to realise, and accept, that children disrupt that control, and that the extra time to work no longer exists” and this view is certainly shared by many of the junior partners we work with. However, it is vital that law firms also accept and acknowledge that — empirically speaking — the female mental load (sometimes described as ‘emotional labour’) is a very real problem disproportionately impacting female partners and negatively impacting the male to female partnership figures, particularly at law firms operating in major legal hubs around the world (London, New York, Washington, Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, Paris). Statistically, the majority of women in heterosexual households with at least one child are considered the ‘manager’ of the home and these managerial responsibilities are permanent and exhausting but all too often overlooked and strangely invisible.

Fortunately, as more men and women take equal shares in childcare, as more same sex couples are parenting visibly in the workplace, as single-parent partners become increasingly accepted, and as firms embrace the diversity of the workforce, and because of all our shared experiences during this immensely challenging and unprecedented time, the days of having to choose between work and family will be over, and people can make their own decisions about their personal lives and career without thinking “but that is not how they did it”.

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