Career progression for women in small and medium-sized law firms

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Juliet Kele is a postgraduate researcher and Teaching Fellow in Human Resource Management. Her current research examines how career progression takes place in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the legal profession.

It can be argued that the legal profession, to a great extent, still appears to bring with it a certain image – that of a predominately ‘male’ or ‘masculine’ occupational identity. Notions of the ‘old boys' network’ and of a workforce that remains generally ‘pale, male and stale’ still resound in the corridors of courtrooms and law practices across the UK. Nevertheless, is this still the case in smaller and more local law firms? Does this difference in firm size have a favourable impact upon the career progression of female lawyers? This is one area of my research focus.

Drawing upon interviews conducted within Yorkshire small and medium-sized law firms (those with fewer than 250 employees), company size was believed to be important in confronting issues of the ‘glass ceiling’ and unequal treatment – problems which are considered more troublesome in larger law firms.

What is more, two female employees interviewed believed that their gender had actually benefitted them. They said that the legal profession is still very male-dominated and there were opportunistic advantages to being female: either via flirting or being used as a type of ‘token’ to balance out the male-heavy business structure of senior positions within firms.

However, for female lawyers wishing to progress within the businesses, there was one main sticking point - the choice of career or family. They admitted that being a woman in the workplace was ‘difficult’; they felt that they were ‘expected’ by their colleagues to have children. While some female employees thought that they should not have to choose between prioritising family and work, others said that there was still a ‘sacrifice’ to be made for women in the legal profession.

The general consensus was that there were still ‘fairly limited opportunities’ in law firms for female employees who wished to have families. The legal profession itself was criticised – ‘in this line of work’ – that maintaining a work-life balance was challenging and ‘something’s got to give’.

Reflecting upon this ‘choice’ and supporting recent news reports, young female interviewees wished to reach a level in the organisation where they felt ‘indispensable’ – usually, after qualifying as a solicitor – and then have children: a type of employment security net. Nevertheless, female employees thought that having children undeniably takes a few years out of their career development.

Several female employees mentioned ‘having to compromise’, even though they had invested heavily into their education and worked hard to make themselves ‘indispensable’ to their firms. They noted how priorities ‘definitely’ and ‘naturally’ change in putting their children before their career.

Some female interviewees said that they would rather have children early on, and focus more on their career once their children had reached school-age. Yet, there was a feeling of needing to get children ‘out of the way’, which implies that having children is a career advancement obstacle for female workers. Two female solicitors directly stated that being pregnant was a career obstacle and ‘disadvantage’ they had experienced.

While the working-mothers found it challenging to achieve the right ‘balance’ and felt remorseful in not spending enough time at home, they also wanted to be good ‘role models’ for their children. The working-fathers also made sacrifices, but they came at more of a personal cost; work-life balance was important to them as their ‘biggest career driver’ were their new families.

To answer my research question, while smaller law firms were thought to have a more supportive culture than larger firms, starting a family was still considered to be a career progression obstacle for female workers. They had to ‘accept’ that having children would alter their priorities in life and they would focus less on their career until their children were older. Issues regarding balancing shared paternity leave with finances also made it more difficult for those working-parents who wished to stay at home longer with their children.

Of upmost importance to all interviewees was having flexible-working initiatives within the organisations. It appears that the structure of the legal profession itself, with its long-hours culture, acts as the main career obstacle for female employees – it is not as ‘family-friendly’ as other sectors, such as education.

Smaller legal firms have sound motives for getting this right: they do not want to lose valuable and talented women due to career paths that are not sustainable for working-parents.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.