Supporting Returning Mothers in Legal

As part of our series in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2024, our team is reflecting on the issues that affect women in the industries we operate within, and offering their advice on how we can inspire inclusivity and build a more equal future for all.
In this article, Legal Managing Consultant Hayley Martin addresses the difficulties that mothers in the legal profession face when returning to work post-maternity and offers up advice on promoting greater inclusivity in the industry…

There’s a historical concept within the legal profession that, when it comes to starting a family or prioritising your career, women simply cannot have both. Women in the legal profession are frequently made to feel like they can’t ‘have it all’, and the data backs this up: findings from the Equality & Human Rights Commission found that overall, three in four mothers (77%) said they had a negative or possibly discriminatory experience during pregnancy, maternity leave, and/or on return from maternity leave. In addition to this, around one in nine mothers (11%) reported they felt forced to leave their jobs. These negative impacts are even more profoundly felt among ethnic minority mothers, who the report found are even more likely to suffer financial loss or a negative impact on opportunity, status, or job security than white British mothers.

Those women who do decide to have children then appear to be penalized for that decision, having to sacrifice the possibility of progression: the SRA (Solicitors Regulation Authority) reported that the seniority gap between men and women in law firms is still prevalent, with women making up only 32% of those at the full-equity partner level. It seems that what is needed is a change in the culture of the industry, and a recent article published by The Lawyer, dubiously titled ‘Women are no longer loyal’, is indicative of this: the article highlighted that women in the industry are changing jobs more frequently than their male counterparts to progress their careers. Yet they still take, on average, a year longer than men to make Partner.

Rather than admonishing women who feel that they have to sacrifice their careers for their children, or who have to make strategic moves to keep up with their male colleagues, the industry should instead be focusing on how to build a more inclusive space within the legal profession that will allow all parties an even playing field.


How can firms help?

  1. Accommodate a transition period.

The most successful returns to the workplace for post-maternity mothers are the ones that are phased. Plan a staged return on a part-time basis and ensure ‘keep in touch’ days are utilized to ease the transition back into full-time employment. Many returning mothers are affected by separation anxiety, and many also report that the experience of returning to a fast-paced workplace environment suddenly can be daunting. A carefully managed reintroduction period can help ease any back-to-work anxieties and create a smoother process for everyone.

  1. Be flexible where possible.

It’s fair to say the legal profession doesn’t have a reputation for flexibility. But if the industry wants to keep up with the times and continue operating with a diverse and inclusive workforce, it will need to adapt to accommodate requests for greater flexibility. The firms that are breaking away from the constraints that have historically been in place in the workplace are the ones who will attract and retain a diverse workforce with a diverse set of skills and experience to work with them.


  1. Instill a culture of transparency and support.

Sometimes a company can do all the right things and tick all the right boxes, but as we all know, the reality of the workplace culture can tell a different story. The same report referenced earlier in this article found that ‘around half of mothers (51%) who had their flexible working request approved said they felt it resulted in negative consequences.’ Education is key here; it’s important to be consistently addressing and educating on these topics and providing an outlet for support. Ensuring that these avenues are visible for all employees and openly discussed can help to break the perceived stigma around maternity leave. Simply ensuring your team knows how to support a colleague returning from mat leave effectively is a good place to start.

  1. Level the playing field.

Whilst the onus is almost always on the returning mother to manage expectations, negotiate hours, and vie for opportunities upon their return, firms should instead be actively supporting the individual to reestablish their position in the firm and plan for a return-to-work handover long before mat-leave even begins. Equally, ensure that you are treating your returning colleague fairly in terms of equality of opportunity being offered: oftentimes, returning mothers are perceived as less committed to the role than their colleagues. Ensure that this prejudice does not permeate your firm by offering up work that is challenging enough to allow for career advancement and ensure that discussions of career progression and advancement are continuing to be held regardless of an individual’s paternal status.


Ultimately, how the return-to-work process is managed will be the deciding factor in whether a firm will be perceived as allowing discrimination against working mothers. The firms that are proactive in supporting their returning employees and advocating on their behalf will pave the way for a more inclusive future in the industry.
Failing to effectively accommodate and actively promote the possibility for female lawyers to ‘have it all’ will result in a loss of talent and the loss of diverse voices in the industry. But by showing that women can succeed within the profession and start a family, more professionals will be inspired to enter the industry in the future, and those already within it will see that it will be possible to continue to build their careers regardless of the path they choose to follow.