How to tell your law firm really cares

This blog by Caroline Flanagan first appeared on the Lawyers in Balance blog.

Your employer may be creating lots of fanfare around its gender credentials, but is this just a smoke screen, or do they really care?

One of the tasks I impress on my clients is the need to do their homework. This involves digging deep into the culture of their organisation before they have children so that they really understand what they’ll be up against when they do. Armed with this information, they can make informed decisions about their career strategy within that organisation or, in the worst-case scenario, whether it’s time to build a future elsewhere.

Ideally, any research or investigating you do would take place before you decide which firm to join, but for many this isn’t the case. It’s only later, once the reality of working long unsociable hours sets in and the (im)possibility of having a family becomes an issue, that most of you begin to wonder. No matter. If you’re already working it’s not too late. Some due diligence, even late in the day, is better than no due diligence at all if you want to avoid any unpleasant surprises in the future.

So at Babyproof, when we help clients do their homework, what do we help them look for? Well all sorts of things. A female employee who wants to increase her chances of a career that can survive the tornado-like impact of starting a family, needs to read all the signs: the attitudes of co-workers, the HR policies and the underlying culture of the organisation. You want to be able to answer questions like: How difficult is it going to be to transition from where you are now (potentially available 24 hours at day) to where you’d be if you had a small baby at home that you couldn’t abandon or cancel at a moment’s notice? How will you be treated when you have to start saying no to meetings at anti social hours and to questioning impossible deadlines? How will you be made to feel when you have to leave the office at 6.30p.m. to collect your baby from nursery, and when you work from home one day a week during busy periods?

There is a wonderful movement towards better flexibility and work life balance these days, even in the notoriously exempt world of law. The industry is awash with firms boastfully displaying their gender credentials, equality targets and flexible working initiatives. Most of them seem to be saying the right things, and for the impartial observer, what your firm says is probably enough.

But is it enough for you? If you’re on the inside, it’s what your firm does that counts, not what it says. Scratch the surface of some gender initiatives and you’ll find that old values maintain a stubborn and sinister grip on the firm’s culture. And the evidence will be right before your eyes: brilliant talented women leaving in droves because when they crossed the threshold to motherhood, the gender initiatives made no difference at all.

Is this the fate that awaits you in your firm when you have kids? Not if you’re in a firm that really cares. Here are 7 signs that your firm is one of them:

1. They ask the right questions

Does your firm regularly circulate surveys (or other means of obtaining feedback) asking for your honest feedback on existing practices, on what matters most to you, and giving you an opportunity to express, both honestly and anonymously, any concerns or areas of dissatisfaction?

2. They listen to the answers

Does your firm listen? Do you see any evidence of their conscious attempt to address your concerns? Is there any evidence that they are listening, or do you find yourself raising the same issues again and again only to hear the same rote responses?

3. They value your track record

Has your firm ever promoted a woman to partnership on her return from maternity leave? Are the female partners in your organisation positive role models whose way of balancing work and life you aspire to?

4. They put their money where their mouth is

Does your firm actually invest real resources in its gender initiatives? If you have a networking group, does it invest time and effort in finding the best speakers? Does it pay outside coaches? Do high-ranking partners endorse and openly support the gender initiatives?

5. They lead rather than follow

Is your firm open to new ideas and enthusiastic about trying different solutions, or are you usually the last law firm of your size and nature to embrace a new gender initiative? Are there a variety of different flexible working options available, or is it just one size fits all?

6. They focus on prevention as much as cure

Is your firm looking to do more than address the symptoms? A firm that gives support to women on maternity leave, and encourages women returners is a good thing, and deserves huge credit. But a firm that really cares is going to look at the root cause, and invest time and resources to stop the problem arising in the first place, for example by supporting women long before they have children, to prepare themselves and their careers for what’s to come.

7. They value results, above all else

When they have conversations about flexible working, what language do they use? Do they talk solely in terms of numbers of hours, or is the conversation about an employee’s ability to deliver value and achieve high performance?

These are not the only requirements that we would expect a firm to meet in order to receive a Babyproof approval mark, but they are a great place to start. If you answered yes to most of the above questions then from the point of view of balancing work and family, the future for you looks bright.

Have you come across other evidence that a firm does or doesn’t care? What other criteria would you apply to determine whether a firm cares enough about keeping talented women in their organisation, even when they start a family?