A fifth of female solicitors were promoted into a new role by their law firms during or after maternity leave, but a similar proportion “felt unwelcome” on their return, a major study has found.
Researchers from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) said maternity pay at law firms ranged from the statutory minimum to paid leave of nine months, with most offering between four and six months.
The study was based on responses from 554 solicitors who had been pregnant or taken maternity leave during their careers, a survey of 29 law firms’ maternity policies and an in-depth review of “best practice approaches” at 17 firms.
The SRA said around a fifth of solicitors “had positive experiences and were promoted into a new role while on maternity leave or when they returned”. In several cases, women were offered partnerships while on maternity leave.
But the same proportion said they were not welcome when they returned. One woman said she was “pressured to become self-employed”, meaning she would not return to her previous earning level for another five years.
“I was told by my female manager and partner that, because I had had a baby before I reached partner, ‘I could not expect to be made partner’. Being pregnant was unprofitable. While on maternity leave, I resigned.”
Just under half of solicitors chose to work reduced hours when returning to work after maternity leave.
Researchers said: “Many of the women who went back full-time said that they were concerned that working part-time might impact on their careers and opportunities for progression.
“All the firms we spoke to had flexible working options which were open to anyone who requested them, with the majority also saying that they felt that the pandemic would increase this in the longer term. One firm said the focus had ‘shifted from presenteeism to output’.”
Most solicitors said they worked for a firm with a formal pregnancy and maternity policy, although about a fifth said their employer lacked one.
Maternity pay varied widely from the legally required basic level of statutory pay to nine months fully paid leave, with most firms offering between four and six months paid leave.
Most women opted to stay in touch with their firm while on maternity leave.
“Most of the firms we spoke to would agree in advance the level, type and volume of engagement they would have while their employee was on maternity leave.”
Some solicitors said their firms “overstepped the mark” in terms of contact, with one saying: “After my baby was born, I was contacted regularly about work. I would have appreciated receiving general information on what was happening at work but did not like to be continually on call.
“I was forced to email my firm after two months of my baby being born, requesting them not to contact me.”
A narrow majority of solicitors said they did not benefit from adjustments at the workplace while they were pregnant.
Some adjustments were “very simple”, such as making sure pregnant women did not have to carry heavy bundles to court. Others involved physical adjustments to desks, chairs and other equipment.
“Some women said they felt unable to ask or did not want to ‘make a fuss’. Others had been offered a risk assessment to consider adjustments but were not satisfied with the outcome.
“For example, one woman told us her firm would not reduce her target hours even though she was due to go on maternity leave, which meant she missed out on receiving a bonus.”