Somaya Ouazzani writes in Legal Week: Fertility Funding in Law Firms: Why Now and What Next?

An increasing number of women in law are struggling with their fertility and these women tell me it is closely linked to their age and/or stress.

U.S. law firm Cooley and Magic Circle firm Clifford Chance have recently announced that they will be extending their employee benefits to include funding fertility treatment.

Is it a coincidence that lawyers within this category of high performance, high pressured, firm  – and in the legal profession in general – are facing more fertility struggles hence the need for an employee benefit of this kind?

Empirically speaking, it seems the answer is no. It is widely accepted that in law a woman’s peak child bearing age coincides with when she might expect her career to take an important and career making turn with developments in role, profile raising, and exposure. Because of this, for decades female lawyers have felt forced to postpone their family plans in order to reach these professional mile stones.

Will the likes of Cooley and Clifford Chance pave the way for more law firms to follow suit in an effort to finally recognise, and respond to, this unfortunate coincidence and if so, is it enough? Will this extension of benefits be enough to put right the institutional, and systemic biases and structural inequalities that have for so long forced women to postpone their familial aspirations in the hope of making Senior Associate, Counsels, and Partners?

To assume that fertility treatment funding is enough is very simplistic. If these benefits are on offer to respond to the fact that professional women – especially those in law – are having children later – law firms ought to focus on the root causes of why a disproportionate number of female lawyers are struggling to have children.

Whilst I am clearly not an expert in these matters, I have worked with enough senior female lawyers to know that delaying their family plans seems to make the fertility journey harder. It is widely accepted that the younger you are, statistically, the better your chances to get pregnant and stay pregnant with less complications and stresses along the way.

Then there’s the impact of stress, adrenal fatigue, poor wellbeing, self-neglect, and poor nutrition upon one’s fertility health. Might it be better for law firms to think about incorporating into their employee benefits, and every day cultures, a greater emphasis on wellbeing and self-care?

The Magic Circle law firm Linklaters has just introduced their Wellbeing App designed to transform the way its lawyers approach their mental health with a greater emphasis on proactivity. That lawyers need to be reminded to take care of themselves and focus on their mental health speaks volumes, and an initiative like this is long overdue. If lawyers are taught, and encouraged, to take better care of themselves, surely this can only be a good thing from a fertility and family planning perspective if we adopt a more grass roots approach.

There’s also the question of what happens before, during, and after pregnancy and how a better understanding of this might ostensibly improve fertility rates. Firstly, those taking part in any fertility treatment need to have the latitude to take time away from the office without fear of judgment or reprimand. Not just for the treatment and investigation itself but also in the event of loss and/or disappointment.

English law firm, Kingsley Napley has recently introduced a formal pregnancy loss policy providing paid time off for all its staff that are directly or indirectly affected by pregnancy loss. No fertility benefits package can be complete without provision like this and, it should include failed fertility treatments too.

Obvious patterns are emerging. An increasing number of women in law are struggling with their fertility and these women tell me it is closely linked to their age and/or stress and life style factors (primarily being lack of rest, overworking, high pressure environments etc.) all of which is forcing women to rethink their family plans.

I’ve heard more stories than I care to remember of women miscarrying at work, rushing back to the office after an egg transfer, or egg collection and, a very common one – struggling to get home early enough to make the most of their fertile windows. It is widely accepted that the very pressured environments and the need to be available around the clock is not in any way conducive to supporting one’s fertility.

Whilst, therefore, fertility treatment as an employee benefit will be welcomed by most lawyers, the benefit has to be on offer for the right reasons and that should be to help more women in law stay in law without compromising their family plans and without having felt put through the “ringer” to get there.

If law firms are to properly give meaning and effect to this initiative, they must provide a nurturing and supportive working culture that supports pregnancies of all kinds and, a culture that properly embraces maternity and paternity leave at any stage of one’s career.

Law firms must not only help women preserve and/or enhance their fertility but also teach them, and their colleagues, how to guide men and women back to work and assist with what can be a very challenging life transition before they embark upon parental leave. Better support of this kind may reassure lawyers that it is ok and acceptable to start a family sooner, which in turn could well help to minimise the age related struggles associated with fertility challenges.

Fertility struggles and family planning more generally must be considered more holistically.

Other initiatives should include executive coaching with coaches that properly understand the transition from lawyer to lawyer/mother/parent and all it entails.

It is also suggested that firms think differently about how parents, particularly female lawyers’, contributions to firms are measured. The billable hour model is not inclusive nor does it provide an equal playing field for female lawyers with children. Given the extent to which one’s billable hours inform their pay and promotion prospects, this must change if women are to feel comfortable starting a family.

Somaya’s article was published in Legal Week and can be found here.

 

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