The key to a solicitor’s career success? Creating connections

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By Juliet Kele, Doctoral Student and Teaching Fellow, WERD

Employment lawyers regularly counsel and advise both employers and employees on a diverse matter of workplace related issues, but do they ever reflect upon the employment relationship, and inclusive working practices within their own firms? Historically, the legal profession has been perceived as an ‘old boys club’ – and can still be argued as such in modern times. The senior positions in most law firms are filled with middle-aged, white men (‘male, pale and stale’). These issues have animated my research in aiming to discover whether a smaller law firm size has a favourable impact upon the career progression of female and ethnic-minority lawyers.

The findings of this research reveal that while smaller law firms were thought to have a more supportive culture than larger firms – in terms of implementing flexible-working initiatives and being ‘family-friendly’ employers – lawyers with high levels of social capital were looked upon more favourably at each career progression round.

Using interviews conducted within Yorkshire small and medium-sized legal practices (firms with fewer than 250 employees), my research considers how career progression is experienced by a diverse range of employees and the factors perceived to influence career progression in this context. My analysis shows that a crucial factor perceived as having a positive effect upon career progression – regardless of the smaller firm size – was that of having high levels of social capital: favourable connections and networks.

Some individuals acknowledged their ‘luck’ of good connections – for example, paralegals being able to move companies with their supervisors – and individuals gaining their current position through connections or recommendations. Moreover, it was felt that in smaller law firms, competing against fewer colleagues, individuals may be able to foster a closer mentoring and sponsorship relationship with supervisors than in larger businesses. This, in turn, may be beneficial to career advancement as management come to recognise and acknowledge the efforts of their staff.

Part of a solicitor’s work responsibilities is the development of connections and constant networking. These are highly-desirable skills, not only for the business interests of the company but are also for accelerating the speed of career progression. However, my research demonstrates this may be easier for some groups than for others.

While the smaller law firms were considered to have more supportive cultures than larger firms, for female lawyers aspiring to progress their careers, as reported by the Law Society Gazette, one main stumbling block endured: the choice between career and family. The general impression was that there were still ‘fairly limited opportunities’ for progression in law firms for female employees who wished to have families. Due to familial responsibilities, they felt unable to commit to the extensive demands on their time in terms of networking in connection to both servicing existing and generating new clients, often known as ‘rainmaking’.

Female employees admitted that being a woman in the legal profession was ‘difficult’. Although they had invested heavily into their legal education, they still felt that their colleagues expected them to have children. While some female employees thought that they should not have to choose between prioritising family and work, others said that there was still a ‘sacrifice’ to be made for women in the legal profession. Moreover, two female solicitors directly stated that being pregnant was a career obstacle and disadvantage they had experienced.

Similarly, minority ethnic lawyers also had greater levels of commitments outside of work; either relating to religious observations, responsibilities to both their close and extended families and in assisting their wider communities. The legal profession itself was criticised: with long-working hours and frequent late-nights, networking and weekend work, maintaining a work-life balance was challenging – as one respondent said: ‘something’s got to give’. The opportunity cost here is deciding whether to dedicate more time to family life or to career advancement.

Working-fathers also made sacrifices, but they came at more of a personal than career cost. Work-life balance was important to them, as their ‘biggest career driver’ were their new families. Some working-fathers also criticised the legal profession stating it was ‘a younger man’s game’ – they said that their priorities now shifted more towards a family-focus and being at home with their families; rather than rain-making for their employers.

In sum, from my research, these smaller law firms and their workforces recognise the importance assigned by its valuable ‘knowledge workers’ to maintaining a ‘work-life balance’. These legal practices thus awarded more prominence to the implementation of flexible-working practices than larger companies.

This smaller company size was felt by employees – especially those with external commitments – to have a more accommodating organisational culture than larger law firms. Despite this, with importance continuously placed on a long-hours culture, building connections and constant networking, lawyers with the highest social capital levels will make the most advances in their careers. These lawyers continue to be of the ‘male, pale and stale’ variety.

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