Motherhood and the Road to Partnership

On Mother’s Day, I sat down to write this blog – and reflected on the extra challenges that women associates still face in making it to partner. This is despite the fact that most law firms have generous maternity leave policies. From the firm’s perspective, their greatest challenge in developing more women partners is the loss of very good senior women associates from the partnership track, particularly at the six year call level – just when firms are considering associates for partnership. Why is this? It is not because women lose interest in becoming partners after six years of call, but because of two colliding events.

First, many young women complete five or six years in practice just when they hit their prime childbearing years– somewhere in their thirties – at the same time that an associate becomes a serious contender for partnership. (While some women defer having children until they are made partner or reach executive positions in order to avoid the maternity leave pitfalls, this is a very risky gamble given the difficulties of conceiving as women move into their late thirties).

The second reason is because of either unconscious or perhaps conscious bias on the part of some firms. Some partners wonder if the returning woman will be able to handle the pressures of motherhood and full time practice. The partner may also be concerned that a large file might be interrupted by a second maternity leave. No matter how well intentioned those reasons appear to be (from the partner’s or firm’s perspective), the result is women returning from maternity leave are often denied the ability to work on complex or good files, or to engage with clients on projects which would give that associate an opportunity to develop the expertise or client relationships which are key to any partnership considerations.

Another challenge is that some partners have formed a good working relationship with another associate while the woman was away. The partner may ignore the returning woman associate and expect her to create a new relationship with other partners and find new work there. This can be very difficult especially if the other partners have concerns about the associate’s commitment to the firm and practice of law now that she has children. For all of these reasons, a woman associate may find herself struggling to both find good work and experience, and the necessary business development opportunities after she returns from her leave.

This is where leadership from the top of the firm is so important. The managing partner or management committee must have a plan in place to work with the returning woman associate and the partners in her group to ensure she continues to get good work to support her professional development and meet her targets.

This plan cannot be left to the partners with whom the woman works as they may have all or some of the biases mentioned above. Leadership from the top sends a strong signal to the partners that there is an expectation that the returning woman associate will be supported. It also sends a signal to all the women associates that the firm wants them to succeed and is willing to work with them to help bridge this time through to partnership.

The transition back to practice after giving birth is probably the most difficult and challenging time in a woman’s legal career. Many firms assist this transition with a reduction in billable targets for a short period of time or greater flexibility around work arrangements. This short-term investment will pay off in the long term when a strong associate stays on partnership track and eventually becomes partner.

Unfortunately, law firms do not always think long-term. They may see a reduced hours arrangement as a loss in revenue for that year while forgetting that the development of quality, committed partners requires a longer-term investment.

If a woman associate sees that she is getting no support from the firm in rebuilding her practice nor is anyone speaking to her about what work arrangements might help her over the short-term, she often assumes that the firm doesn’t really care whether she stays or leaves. She may also assume (correctly or incorrectly) that the firm is sending her a signal that she is no longer on partnership track now that she is a parent.

The result of this lack of communication between the returning lawyer and the firm is that women associates often quit, as they see no future no matter how hard they work. From their perspective there are just too many barriers being placed in their path.

When a woman lawyer quits, it can easily be rationalized by the firm as a “life-style” choice unrelated to anything they have done or could have done. This contributes to the firm’s belief that women lawyers are less likely to make it once they have children. It can become a continuous and frustrating cycle for both partners and associates.

However, given good work and often some slight changes in work arrangements, these same women can bridge the gap between becoming a parent and a partner. Firms that reach out to their returning women associates to see how they can assist them during this crucial phase of their career, create very loyal associates. The women are willing to go the extra mile because the firm has signaled that it believes in them and wants them to succeed.

Supporting returning mothers may be the most critical point in a woman lawyer’s career that will create the opportunity for partnership. Firms need to start by showing leadership at the top, having a plan to keep the work flowing, seeing what adjustments can be made in work arrangements and keeping the conversation going. This short-term investment may be the best investment a firm can make in retaining talented women associates who will one day make remarkable contributions as partners.

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