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How law firms can support employees’ family plans

Establishing inclusive and equitable polices around fertility as well as supportive partner-led approaches to leave for fertility appointments will help law firms attract and retain talent.

This was one of the key messages from a recent panel discussion hosted by People in Law and fertility and reproductive health benefits provider Fertifa, which explored how firms can develop cultures that ensure employees’ family-forming plans are supported, whatever situation an individual is in.

Natalie Sutherland, a partner at family law specialists Burgess Mee, became the firm’s ‘chief fertility officer’ in recognition of the fact that family-friendly messages need to be championed from the top and that staff are often unsure who to talk to about reproductive health issues.

She said it was important for firms to develop a culture where people could talk about their family plans, as this could benefit staff wellbeing, retention and attraction.

“It’s great that firms have been offering fertility benefits and American firms have been offering them for a while, but I didn’t think that was enough,” Sutherland said of her role.

“There has to be a culture change, because for women there’s always this fear that if you are trying to get pregnant, or if you are pregnant, people will think worse of you and that you’re not committed to your career.”

Being open

She approached other partners at the firm with the idea as she believed that Burgess Mee needed to be the type of firm where staff didn’t have to keep their journey towards parenthood to themselves.

“A lot of the time these issues are kept secret – people go off to IVF appointments and don’t want to tell people they’re having that treatment,” she said.

“We wanted to change that and we feel the way to do that is by opening up conversations, by leading from the top and being open about our experiences. I’ve told my colleagues what I went through [having a miscarriage] and I think that has helped.”

Sutherland is supporting Cities of London and Westminster MP Nickie Aiken to bring forward a Private Members’ Bill that aims to give employees a right to time off work for fertility appointments.

Championing from the top

Emily Miles, an associate at Harbottle and Lewis, agreed it was important for partners to promote any fertility benefits their firm has in place and to be open with staff about their fertility journeys.

“As a more junior in a law firm you look at the partners and senior associates above you and think, ‘Do they have the things I want in life?’. If [partners] are able to have these conversations and talk about balancing their family and their job it makes it feel more attainable to you,” she said.

Miles said these conversations were particularly important in law firms because many lawyers start a family later in life due to the length of time it takes to train and qualify as a solicitor. This delay in parenthood sometimes means staff experience fertility issues.

This may mean many in the profession will go through IVF, which Miles said can result in side-effects from any medication they may take.


Firms also needed to be aware of the pressures staff experience upon returning to work after having a baby, said Miles.

“The route to parenthood has been made more attainable by working from home and the flexible working culture many of us now have. But there’s still a general fear that [you’re] going to be seen differently as a mother,” she said.

“I was worried for months that I wasn’t going to be given the best work because they’d think I’d be distracted or wouldn’t perform at the level I’d been performing at before.”

Miles advised firms to think about how they could support new parents. “Lawyers often have quite high target hours – can you reduce those? Maybe for the first year back, make their target hours only 80%,” she suggested.


Fertility benefits and policies should be inclusive of women and men, heterosexual and same-sex couples, and those who want to have a baby without a partner, said Eileen Burbidge, executive director at Fertifa.

“We know from the work we do at Fertifa that for heterosexual couples, male health issues comprise more than 40% of fertility challenges. Men need just as much support as their female partners, or same-sex partners, and they will probably be speaking about this even less than women,” she said.

Employers should also be aware that fertility treatment and pregnancy does not always result in live birth, so support should be in place to help staff in this situation.

Many people from the LGBTQ+ community will need to access fertility treatments if they want to start a family, so offering such benefits will make a firm more attractive over its competitors.

Sutherland said: “Millennials and Generation Z are demanding more and we’re seeing them asking about these types of benefits and policies during interviews. If it’s a choice between two different jobs they might go for the firm that offers these benefits.”

Develop ‘stand-alone’ policies

Time off for fertility appointments should be offered as part of a specific fertility or “family-forming” policy, and should not be wrapped into other policies around “special” leave.

Sutherland said: “This gives the employee clarity. How are [they] going to know that things like IVF come under your firm’s other policies around ‘special leave’?”

Miles said: “Fertility is very different from bereavement or care – it’s not just support, it’s more than that. It’s a company saying they’re going to invest in this for you. I think it’s really important to separate it out.”


Education should also form part of the support offered, and this should cover the entire life cycle including menopause.

Sutherland suggested hosting ‘lunch and learn’ sessions to build awareness.

“Many people don’t know about their fertility until they start trying for a baby. It may be they’re not really interested until it affects them. But it’s good for people to be able to have that education provided by the firm so that everyone has that basic knowledge,” she said.

Miles acknowledged that benefits and education come with financial cost to the firm, and it might be more difficult for smaller firms to justify this or offer the same level of support as larger organisations.

“Even if you can’t provide as much as you’d like to, providing something like information or access to medical professionals [will help]. Any help you can provide is going to be hugely valuable to your workforce,” she said.

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