Flexible working: The Loyalty Card

Men should take up their new rights so that flexible working becomes the accepted norm for both sexes

I was recently a panellist at tThe Whitehall Industry Group (WIG) conference on ‘Accelerating gender diversity all the way up to the boardroom’.  My session focused on progress since the Davies Report and what needs to be done to stimulate the development, promotion and retention of female talent. My contribution was largely about the legal sector.

Whilst I was able to cite various examples of successful female lawyers in public and private practice, as well as the in-house world – all important role models for the younger generation of female talent – the fact we have almost equal numbers of men and women entering the profession and only a small number of women make it to partnership, shows we too have lessons to learn (just 17.6 per cent of partners in the top 20 firms are women according to research by The Lawyer).

My firm Kingsley Napley is in the top 100 UK firms with a turnover of £27.8m (financial year 2012/13) and average profits of £405,000. Seventy-five per cent of our turnover comes from litigation-related work. In the equity partnership some 38 per cent of the partners are women and in the full partnership that percentage figure increases to 45 per cent.  More so perhaps than at other law firms, flexible working, both for men and women at the firm, plays a big role in achieving and supporting these statistics. We have several working mothers in the partnership as well as fathers who work flexibly to help look after teenagers. I can also think of examples where we have accommodated fee earners – male and female – who need to spend time over what may be an undefined period with vulnerable family members such as elderly parents. 

Flexible working is not the same as part-time working.  It demands trust on both sides.  It is no good standing at the front door counting up the hours or chargeable units that a particular fee earner may have achieved during a week or month of flexible working.  It also requires teamwork as the clients’ needs come first and colleagues, especially junior colleagues, may need to understand at first hand their role in providing a seamless service.  Technological advances have, of course, been a great enabler for those who want to log-on at home late at night or continue to oversee their litigation on a smart-phone from beside a hospital bed. But our culture as a firm I think has been critical too. We are in my opinion a very human organisation.

Where it works, flexible working generates great loyalty to a firm.  Flexible workers very rarely move firms and are far more immune to the siren call of the head-hunter promising not just more money but the prospect of advancement and quite possibly heading up a whole team or department. 

In 2014 it is proposed that flexible working will be extended to all employees with 26 weeks’ service, not just parents and carers.  Unpaid parental leave increased from 13 to 18 weeks in March 2013 and it is intended that from 2015 it will apply to children up to the age of 18 as opposed presently to the age of five.  As I said at the conference, if more men take up their new rights so that flexible working becomes an accepted norm for both sexes, then this will do more for the advancement of women into partnerships and boardrooms than the imposition of any quotas. 

By Jane Keir, senior partner, Kingsley Napley