Every firm in legal services is searching for the way to achieve gender parity in their senior leadership ranks. Some firms are good at retaining and promoting women to Partner, but many are not. Earnest soul searching is followed by observations that many leave for in-house roles and don’t want that career path due to their family responsibilities. I’m going to suggest that the real reason is that the way work flows from client to fee earner in firms is resulting in the practices and reputations high performing Senior Associates build up before they take parental leave are being stolen - by firms who allow it to happen and their colleagues who probably know what they are doing, but have seen many others do it and never get called on it.
After many years of coaching and training Senior Associates on the partner track who had returned from parental leave I started to hear an interesting pattern, mostly from women and one man who took parental leave:
“Yes, I had great clients and interesting work before I left, and now I’m starting from scratch again”
“I asked if I could work on a matter that came in for an old client, but [team member] has been working closely with them.
“I’ve gotten some of my clients back but not the really interesting work”
“I did lots of work for ABC Corp who are a great client of the firm, but now they are being looked after [Insert team member here]”. I call these people PALP in my coaching notes - Peer Also Looking for Partner or less kindly in this blog they are the House Thief.
In the last couple of months I started talking about this pattern with Partners - both male and female - to see if they had seen it, recognised it or experienced it. In short yes, with a twist related to the time a person was away on parental leave:
“They were only away for a couple of months so we were able to manage things with the client”
“I took only a couple of months leave and actively kept in touch with my clients”
“I took twelve months leave and then extended it by another two months. By the time I came back our whole team had changed and someone else was looking after my clients. It felt like I was starting from scratch again”
The reaction from partners who experienced high turnover of women in their firms was even more revealing:
It’s all about client service we can’t wait that long for them to come back, sometimes they don’t come back so we need to replace them.
The Client is really happy with PALP [Peer Also Looking for Partner - who now is also really happy that they have the clients needed to make their business case for promotion]
It’s hard to put them back doing work for that client when they work only three days a week.
My next step was to take a close look in the academic research to see if there were explanations or insights into the pattern I was seeing and here is what I found that looked interesting:
Professionals that use I-deals - individual deals and arrangements described by Rousseau are more likely to have this challenge. Professionals work on client matters rather than having a job with defined responsibilities that they hand over and hand back. We arrange parental leave cover for a Finance Director in a law firm, but not the Senior Associate in the property team.
The same research that established the differences in salary negotiation confidence for women can be applied to the confidence to ask (or should I say demand under the Fair Work Act) their work back.
The insecure overachiever and the leadership constellation described by Laura Empson also provides useful insight - two factors that make it really easy and socially acceptable for a practice to be stolen or interesting work not returned as it is taken over by others.
The same research that demonstrated professional women work harder before they take parental leave is revealing when combined with positive and negative perfectionism - these individuals don’t stop wanting to be great at what they do and work on interesting matters when they return. Most I talk with are just a little bit happy they can have some adult conversation and finish a cup of tea while they do work they find rewarding and interesting.
What can firms do?
Equivalent Work - use all that data sitting in the time recording system to analyse the work people do before and after they return from parental leave. See if there is a relationship between the type of work people do before an after parental leave. Put that information in front of the decision makers and Partners who need to change their views. No one will be able to look surprised when a smart, bright new parent just returned from parental leave works out that they are being given burger and chips work rather than organic wholefoods and decide to eat somewhere else. It’s analysis your HR team can do and it uses data you already have. Happy to show you different ways it can be done.
Ask your Employee Relations team to run training on the Return to Work guarantee provision of the Fair Work Act. I particularly like Section 84 “nearest in status and pay to their pre-parental leave position”. Being given the title and remuneration of a Senior Associate without the high quality work, client facing work and most importantly their old clients back isn’t really in the spirit of equivalent status in the legislation. We all know what the low status work is in a law firm and if your newly returned to work parent is doing most of it, they simply shouldn’t be. Is this the reason so many professional women enjoy in house roles? Those corporate organisations put someone in the role to house sit while a person is on parental leave and they return the keys to them when they come back. No negotiation needed.
Give Senior Associates and the Partners in the group they work in a forum for talking about how this will work. Include all the peers of the person going on parental leave and all the Partners - everyone needs to know that Amanda’s house is only available for house sitting and when she returns, she will be living in the house again. If the neighbours ask who you are give the right reply:
Great person says: “I’ll be working on this matter while Amanda is away on parental leave/ looking after her parents/ enjoying six months on a beach somewhere”
Not so Great person says: “I’m really looking forward to working with you on this matter. Amanda should be back in September, but it’s up to her and of course it’s baby number three”
PALP says": “I’ll be looking after you going forward”.
Make the comparison to fee earners who experience serious illness where an excellent performer will be away from the office for an extended period. “Amanda is away looking after some serious health issues. We are all looking forward to having her back as soon as she is ready. In the interim, I’ll be looking after this matter for you and keeping Amanda up to date”.
Make a real effort to include Amanda in the client relationship activities as soon as she is ready to return. Schedule meetings on the days when she will be in the office, shift or share interesting work to ensure Amanda is genuinely involved again and have the person who has looked after the house be actively involved in handing back the keys by giving a walk through of the matters completed while Amanda was away and what she can do to further build the relationship with the client. If your firm has “keep in touch” days as part of your parental level return to work programme, include updates for Amanda on her clients and schedule social catch ups with clients on these days with both Amanda and the House Sitter. All with the Partner’s blessing and active support.
What can clients and in house counsel do?
Ask when Amanda is coming back and request her back on your matters. Call me crazy, but Partners really listen to their clients and GCs have the power to prevent house stealing from happening.
Ask who is looking after Amanda’s work on parental leave and the transition plan on and off your matters. It’s the same as thinking out when you will move in and move out of a house sit.
Tell your panel firms that you are aware of this issue and that you don’t want to see it happening to anyone taking parental leave - men or women.
What can you do?
Look out for your Neighbours: Take the requirements of the anti-discrimination act seriously. I know most of you won’t have to look too far to find a copy. Don’t discriminate against parents who take leave in any form - including stealing their house or allowing someone to steal it. This problem was anticipated in the Fair Work Act - it’s just written with the majority of the workforce in mind - those with jobs where the title closely links to the work. In professional services it doesn’t work that we and we need to take extra steps to ensure there is no discrimination.
If a colleague in your team takes parental leave don’t be a PALP. The client you are now able to work with is on loan, look after it, enjoy the experience and then return the keys.
Talk about the difference between house sitting and house stealing with your friends at work and see what they think. This is a practical conversation you can have and listen carefully to what they have experienced.
For over fifteen years I’ve been watching to see if all the well intentioned efforts to improve the experience for women in law are really not making a difference - serious time and money has been investment for relatively small improvements in partner gender equity. I was and remain skeptical that much of the focus to date has been in areas that seemed trendy and have worked for large corporates. Professional services firms are different, career paths are different and the challenges around being a working parent are different. These differences impact the careers of every person who takes parental leave and the vast majority of those are women. This has led to my new focus area specifically targeting gender equity in partnerships. Learn more here. Let’s not waste another fifteen years doing the things that work in corporate settings. Let’s really look for the challenges in professional services, investigate them with data and research to find the areas that need work and then take steps to make real change happen.