“Many law firms seem to take the attitude that once you’ve got a bun in the oven, you’re toast,” writes WaitroseLaw.
Having your every bout of morning sickness reported on, facing catty questions about when you’ll get your pre-pregnancy figure back and trying to protect your baby from the notoriously cold and unfeeling people around you…being pregnant at a law firm may not expose you to quite the same glare of publicity as Kate Middleton, but she might recognise some of the anxieties involved. (Although, obviously, not the “having a proper job” bit.)
The allegations made recently by Cheng Tan, who claims that McDermott Will & Emery made her redundant because she took additional time off to recover from a difficult labour, will sound wearily familiar to many female lawyers.
Her claim (which is denied by the firm) follows hot on the heels of Katie Tantum’s successful claim against Travers Smith. In that case a tribunal found that Travers had reversed a decision to offer two post-qualification jobs in its real estate team as “a device” to prevent Tantum, who was pregnant, being kept on. Embarrassingly for Travers, the tribunal described an email from Julian Bass, its head of real estate, suggesting that he had reconsidered the decision to offer two roles on commercial grounds, as a “subterfuge” — the real reason for not offering Tantum a job was her pregnancy.
Whatever the merits of Tan’s claim against McDermott Will & Emery, it’s undeniable that many City law firms seem to be remarkably hypocritical when it comes to such messy inconveniences as lawyers trying to have an actual family life. At the same time as bemoaning the attrition rates for female lawyers and advising clients about their legal obligations to pregnant staff, many firms seem to take the attitude that once you’ve got a bun in the oven, you’re toast.
What’s unusual about these two recent cases isn’t the allegations themselves but the fact that the cases got as far as a hearing. It’s depressingly common for female lawyers to find themselves mysteriously being made redundant after they go off on maternity leave, or to find that their firm’s flexible working policy is just window dressing. However, most disputes are quietly settled with a pay-off and a well-drafted confidentiality clause.
Even the more enlightened law firms seem to have an odd idea of how having a baby works. At a couple of City firms “flexible working” seems to mean working 9-6 then logging on from home in the evenings. No one seems to have told them it’s pretty difficult to review a merger agreement when your nipples are essentially being sandblasted by eight pounds of wriggly incontinence.
High-flying female partners aren’t always natural allies either. While it’s impressive to have recorded 13 hours a day as you simultaneously give birth to one child and tutor another through its statutory assessment tests (SATs), that doesn’t necessarily translate into reasonable expectations of what your colleagues can achieve. They may, after all, have fewer domestic staff to pick up the slack.
Unfortunately, it could well take more than a couple of high-profile cases for City firms to change their ways. The Solicitors Regulation authority (SRA) has shown little appetite for dealing with the issue, even though the Code of Conduct requires firms to implement proper equality policies. In the meantime, combining motherhood and a career in the law will be tricky for new mothers who can’t call on the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces (aka “Granny Windsor”) for assistance.
WaitroseLaw is a lawyer with luscious organic selection, impeccable ethics and dinner party skills. Not affiliated with/authorised by Waitrose.