Wednesday 4 August 2021 7:50 am

Fertility benefits - for lawyers or for law firms?

More law firms in the City are offering paid leave or paying towards the costs of fertility treatments for their employees in a bid to stay up to date, and keep their lawyers.

Last week law firm Ashurst announced what it called “landmark” changes to its global parental leave policy.

Alongside offering a reduction in chargeable hours targets on return to work, paid leave “irrespective of gender identity” for pregnancies and pregnancy losses – whether it happens directly to staff, or to their partners or surrogate mothers – Ashurst announced the inclusion of five days paid leave for anyone needing to access fertility treatments.

While the changes may be a milestone moment for Ashurst, they are not unprecedented in the legal sector.

Lawyers, long hours and a globally declining fertility rate

Almost two thirds of legal professionals are of child bearing age, aged between 24 – 44 years, according to data from a survey last year by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). 

A number of legal firms are reviewing and updating their benefits for UK staff – particularly to incorporate fertility benefits. 

According to the World Bank, the worldwide fertility rate dropped more than 50 per cent in the past 50 years, while data from Fertility Network UK said one in six couples in the UK were affected by fertility issues, with most forced to take time off work.

In June law firms Cooley and Clifford Chance announced that they would offer UK staff fertility benefits for the first time, including egg freezing and in vitro fertilisation (IVF), following a boom in fertility benefits schemes in the US.

The pandemic was a key driver in bringing the challenges of balancing work with care in the legal sector, to the forefront, said a spokesperson for the Law Society of England and Wales, an independent professional body for solicitors. 

“We have seen more law firms taking steps to support staff with caring responsibilities in these exceptional times,” the body said.  

“Well, it’s definitely in fashion,” agreed Dana Denis-Smith, a former lawyer and the founder of the First 100 Years project that charts the history of women in law. 

Speaking about fertility treatments Smith said: “It’s not a magical process where you sneak into the back of Harley Street, and then you come out with a baby. It requires some kind of care process around that whole experience which is quite traumatic in itself. So it’s good that they [Ashurst] recognise the need to have time to be able to do it.” 

Law firms stand to gain from offering fertility and other parental leave benefits to their staff. “Providing leave and adapting workloads or chargeable hours expectations to support people through challenging times,” said a spokesperson for the Law Society, “will help firms retain diverse talent in the profession and mean individuals can have sustainable and rewarding careers over the long term.”

The return to work is the greater barrier

But, Smith argued, “People don’t leave because they’re trying to have a baby or because they’re not being given long enough. They’re leaving because, once they return, it’s not good enough.”

“These are important benefits,” she acknowledged, “but they are not really going to change the structural aspects that really push people out.” 

“Because once you have the baby is when the real challenge starts for people,” Smith, a mother herself, explains. She highlighted that upon returning to work, lawyers are faced with the challenge of inflexible employers, targets they can’t meet and their ambitions are not taken as seriously.

For some the thought of employers offering support with personal medical processes like infertility treatment, is an uncomfortable one. “One of the main barriers, to a lot of women becoming partners, is when they go and have a baby” admits Jodie Hill, managing partner of her own employment law firm Thrive. 

“But I don’t know whether that’s a solution,” she said, “because it’s almost like saying that’s what you have to do to be a partner.”

Magic circle law firm Slaughter & May said it is currently reviewing its family leave packages covering maternity, paternity, adoption, surrogacy and shared parental leave too. More legal firms may follow suit to offer fertility benefits to UK staff.