Women lawyers do not opt out but are, in effect, opted out.
The legal profession has a problem with women. City and international firms spend vast sums identifying and recruiting the brightest candidates on offer, and more than half of those who make the grade, entirely on merit, are women. Then, at a few years’ PQE, a high proportion of them leave, move in-house, or take roles that ostensibly ‘stall’ their career. This point may or may not coincide with maternity leave.
A widely held view among senior male colleagues is that these women are making a choice to ‘opt out’. But research by the Women In Law London network and King’s College London shows that to be a poor assumption – for complex reasons, these lawyers do not opt out but are, in effect, opted out.
If the existence of a flexible working policy was sufficient, the problem would be as good as solved. Instead, other elements need to be present. Succession planning depends too heavily on self-promotion – an inadequate substitute for coaching, mentoring and championing the skilled professionals firms are keen to keep. Ditching lazy assumptions about ‘opting out’ would also be helpful.
Getting this right is important for all – not least because other research shows that the personal and professional priorities of men coming into the legal sector are converging with those of women. In future, complaisant firms risk losing both.