A&O sets benchmark for part-time work

Clare McConnell

Many of the top 50 UK firms have partners working flexibly, but one of A&O’s distinguishing factors is that it defines parameters on both remuneration and time commitment.

Association of Women Solicitors chair Clare McConnell points to the scheme’s sustainability. “All staff, both those who work flexibly and traditionally, [should] feel they’re treated fairly,” she says.

A&O will cap the number of points that part-time partners can accumulate.

Capital markets partner Geoff Fuller, who chairs the firm’s part-time working steering committee, says this is intended to “strike the right balance between being sufficiently attractive to female associates, who would otherwise leave, and existing full-time partners, who would have to bear some of the extra workload”.

It was also based on a 12-month consultation, which according to Fuller found that “women don’t want favours done for them”.

A&O equity partners enter the lockstep on 20 points, then gain two points per year for 15 years, ­reaching a plateau of 50. Part-time partners will have this capped at 30.

It is no coincidence that this is equivalent to around five years of work – many women want to care for preschool ­children before returning full-time. If ­someone wants to work part-time beyond five years they will most ­likely move to a non-equity role.

Most firms pay part-time partners pro rata. The law is that part-timers should not receive less favourable ­treatment than full-timers. This includes benefits.

But some firms have ­additional measures built into their remuneration ­system. Pinsent Masons part-timers are ­eligible for bonuses for “going beyond what’s expected of them”, says HR and learning ­director Jonathan Bond.

Lovells partners have been working part-time for around a decade and the ­policy is laid out in the firm’s code of practice. Like at A&O there is a time limit to the scheme – three years in
this case. Unlike at A&O, ­however, the onus is on the ­individual to make a case for why they should be allowed to work on such a basis, with the usual reason being because of “young families, teenage children or ill-health”, says senior partner John Young. This may go some way to explaining the low level of take-up at around 1 per cent of all partners.

Pinsents has 11 per cent of partners working part-time. “We don’t tend to demand to know why people want to do it,” says Bond. “That’s their business. Our business is whether they can do their job or not.”

Pinsents does not have a time limit, although all ­flexible working arrangements are reviewed every six months.

Denton Wilde Sapte also holds regular reviews, while Berrymans Lace Mawer and Nabarro have no time limits.

Some firms do not like to talk up their initiatives. Mark Brandon at recruiter First Counsel says many firms were averse to advertising their schemes for fear of being perceived negatively.

Most of our clients are quite careful on how they present themselves on part-time working,” he says. “They’re keen not to present themselves as a ‘soft touch’ or a ‘lifestyle choice’.”

Some firms also worry about alienating clients. But LG real estate dispute ­resolution head Jane Fox-Edwards, who has worked part-time since 2000, thinks this could be a missed opportunity. “For some clients it’s a bonus,” she says, “because they see the firm as taking a forward-thinking approach. Sometimes male clients are impressed by the fact that you have a life and aren’t sat in the office all day.”

Bond says Pinsents will make the availability of ­flexible working clear to new joiners, although it is ­unusual for someone to join part-time – they would be expected to pass their ­probation period first.

There are some well-­developed part-time working schemes available, but Brandon urges candidates to assess the management styles at their new firms before making such a request. “Firms that are management-lite may encounter problems,” he explains.

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Part-time working: the law

Part-time workers are entitled to the proportion of the pay or benefits that full-time workers receive, based on their pro rata hours.

A refusal to allow part-time working can amount to indirect sex discrimination. Statistically women are more likely to need to work part-time. Larger employers will find it harder to justify refusals because of their greater ability to cover, with measures such as job-sharing.

Workers have the right to request flexible working. The Government has put in place a specific procedure to be followed to consider flexible working requests. The penalty will not concern law firms unduly since the maximum award a tribunal can make is eight weeks’ pay, currently capped at £380 for each year of service. The more worrying sanction for businesses is that a refusal to allow flexible working without proper justification can give rise to discrimination claims, which are uncapped.

Mark McQuillan, employment partner, Michael Simkins

What women want

Nearly 60 per cent of new ­solicitors are women. You might think it is merely a ­matter of time before nearly 60 per cent of solicitors in senior positions will be women too.

But evidence shows that things are not so straight-forward. Something more is needed if we are to enable women ­solicitors – more than 50 per cent of whom start out ­wanting to reach partnership – to achieve their ambitions.

What continues to stop those with ability and drive from attaining partnership? Inflexible working schemes and a long-hours culture are the two main reasons.

Around 40 per cent of women leave the profession by nine years’ PQE at a cost not only to themselves, but also at a financial cost to their employers. One firm estimates that it loses £125,000 each time a senior lawyer leaves.

What is the answer? Better use of technology to facilitate remote working; flexible working, including part-time, for all partners and associates, not just women; effective project management so that lawyers working in teams can manage their work properly; and a working culture that reflects a commitment to developing and retaining the skills of all lawyers.

The firms that score highly on retaining women know this. The Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) hopes other firms will soon follow – the business case for the employer is persuasive.

Clare McConnell, chair, AWS