Focus: Flexible Working - Now you see me…
1 February 2010 | By Catrin Griffiths
Flexible working is no barrier to promotion, as these women - all working mothers at the top of their game - can testify
In April 1988, The Lawyer interviewed Susan Freeman, a property partner at West End commercial firm Brecher & Co. She was then a rarity in the commercial legal profession because she was a female partner with children.
“There are lot of people who still feel that a woman is going to get married, have children and stop working,” she said at the time.
Attitudes to working women may have changed, but the debate over working patterns that are compatible with family life is still raging.
The Lawyer’s survey shows that 25 of the top 50 firms operate flexible working policies. However, senior lawyers who work flexibly say that having a policy in place is only part of the story; implementation is the key.
In many ways the firms that have really succeeded in implementing flexible working for senior fee-earners are those that have made the process virtually invisible. Keeping flexible working discreet is a badge of honour - partly to show you can do the job, and partly because it is irrelevant to how you do the job.
“Some people don’t even know that I work flexibly,” says Susan Adams, head of legal West and risk management at Standard Chartered, who has trialled various types of flexible working, from three days or four days to enhanced holidays.
Adams’ comments are echoed by Pinsent Masons Leeds real estate partner Victoria Goddard, who works four days a week.
“I spend lots of my days out of the office anyway,” she says. “I don’t hide it, but I didn’t broadcast it either - not because it’s something to hide, it just wasn’t necessary.”
In many legal sectors technology and travel have disrupted the old-fashioned requirements of having to be present in the office from nine till five, says Genzyme general counsel Suzanne Smith, who has just shifted back to full-time working after 10 years part-time.
“When I was working four days one colleague hadn’t realised I worked part-time, as everyone travels all the time,” she says.
Perhaps this discretion, or the reluctance to draw attention to flexible working status, has inadvertently created the problem of visible role models to show that it does not damage your career.
Seeing is believing
“You need transparency from the organisation on how flexible working can impact on you,” argues Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer employment partner Caroline Stroud, who has just gone back to working full-time after several years working four days a week, and who for the past two years has also been acting as the firm’s ’people’ partner. “It shouldn’t impact on career progression, but it might impact on the amount of experience you get at any one time, so the rate at which you progress may be slightly slower.”
There are plenty of examples of women progressing while working reduced hours - Adams was promoted twice while working flexibly.
Addleshaw Goddard litigation partner Monica Burch opted for flexible working after she had her third child and works 90 per cent hours - something that tends to equate to longer leave that tracks the school holidays. Although she was already a partner when she asked to work flexibly, she was subsequently elected to the board, and not only fee-earns but now also runs the diversity and corporate responsibility function at the firm.
“I do think that [flexible working as a] partner appears easier [to implement] because you’ve got more control over your diary, subject to clients,” she says. But she believes it is definitely possible as an associate. “You simply have to examine your clients and your business flow [with the firm] and then examine what works,” she argues.
Dealing with clients’ expectations may be less of a problem than some private practice lawyers think. Indeed, several in-house lawyers express bemusement at the relative lack of lawyers on flexi-time in private practice.
Cisco director of legal service Amelie de Marsily, who works four days a week and sits on the company’s European board, argues that firms should make the most of technology to enable lawyers to work at home more. “We’re working to have a more defined policy to work flexibly,” she reveals.
In a similar vein, Adams notes that Standard Chartered has rolled out a global flexible working policy.
“At Genzyme,” says Smith, “everyone works flexibly. We’re based in Oxford, but the senior people live all over the place - Ireland, Brighton, Reading.”
One of the most important things, according to LG real estate litigation partner Jane Fox-Edwards, who works four days out of five, is to make sure everyone in the team is in the loop. “The important thing is that your colleagues know when you’re going to be around - things need to be communicated well, because lots of my advice is to colleagues elsewhere in the firm.”
Flexi-lawyers say this is not just about the so-called ‘mummy track’. “It’s essentially women pushing for it, but it shouldn’t be a gender-based issue,” insists de Marsily at Cisco.
However, in practical terms childcare is a key issue. “At the end of the day, nobody should feel you’re dumping on them,” says LG’s Fox-Edwards. “I always make sure I have enough childcare available in case I need to go to a meeting on one of my days off.”
“You have to invest in [childcare] because you’re investing in your career,” says Addleshaws’ Burch. “You can see the stress on someone when they have to leave to do the pick-up.”
Smith agrees, recalling her years on child pick-up duty. “I’d be running sometimes trying to catch the train,” she says. “It was so stressful.”
The main thing, say all concerned, is that flexible working has to mean flexible hours, not fixed hours. It requires give and take on both sides.
“If you want a management or senior job you have to be as flexible as you’re expecting your employer to be,” says Adams. “I try to protect my days off, but there are some days when I have to go in.”
Burch agrees wholeheartedly. “This is not a nine-to-five job,” she points out. “Our full-time colleagues work weekends and you have to accept that even if you carve out a bit more time for yourself it might be interrupted. You can’t proceed on the basis that you’re entitled to work set hours and then not do anything outside. You can’t have a sacred section within a firm.
“A lot of people want to take Friday off, but that doesn’t always work as it’s the end of the week and clients often want things off their desks at that point.”
Fox-Edwards concurs. “There should be no such thing as a part-time adviser,” she says. “I’m not predominantly transactional - I’m always there for them.”
In many ways it is no longer a debate about whether women can have it all. It is, quite simply, a question of the economics of law firm retention.
“If people are going to up and go then you don’t have a sustainable model, you have a rigid work model,” says de Marsily.
The final word goes to Freshfields’ Stroud, who has five children. “Tweaking my work by not working one day made all the difference,” she says. “And it’s kept me in a career that I really like.”
A FEW WORDS OF ADVICE
- A City solicitor’s life is very demanding and the rewards reflect that. If you want to succeed there are no shortcuts - you have to work hard.
- Women cannot ‘have it all’, and you need to recognise this sooner rather than later. You will need to compromise and you will find this is mostly in your family life. Realistically the job pays the bills.
- The complaint of all lawyers (male and female) is how a transactional practice makes it impossible to plan a life outside the office. No one can commit to dinner/ theatre/sport. We can argue about whether this is true, but if these are essential to you rather than desirable, look for an area of practice where you have a better chance of being able to achieve a more amenable work-life balance. The compromise may be the monetary reward.
- You need stamina, so keep fit.
- Seek the advice of others who have ‘achieved’. They may seem like superheroes, but you will find that they have war stories to relate and are all human.
- If you want a family choose your partner with great care - he must be prepared to share all the responsibilities of parenthood; make sure your mother is supportive of your continuing to
- work - nothing is more corrosive than a mother who criticises your choice; and get the best childcare you can afford.
- Learn to manage clients’ expectations. Have the confidence to explain how you need to attend to certain family commitments - do not apologise.
- Enjoy the challenge, but if it is destroying you or your confidence find another opportunity - there is life outside the law.
Clare Maurice, senior partner at Maurice Turnor Gardner