flexible choices

For those starting out in the law, one of the most difficult issues is the choice of law firm. This is not just a question of specialisation and geographical location but in the long-term firm philosophy on matters such as working hours and flexibility. Here, there are real differences.

One of the key issues facing law firms is recruiting and retaining lawyers of the quality needed to provide the service standards that clients demand. The largest firms have an insatiable appetite for recruits and most London practices face continuing challenges from the chequebooks of the US firms. Nevertheless, medium-sized firms are able to compete successfully for excellent lawyers.

They achieve this by differentiating themselves in the recruitment market. One differentiation is the work/life balance. It is perfectly possible to be an ambitious and effective lawyer and have a home life and outside interests. Not only is it possible, but it is very much in the interests of the law firm as well as its clients. The long-term health of a firm and its lawyers can be underpinned by ensuring that working hours are kept under proper control and that working long hours is not rewarded. Lawyers will not innovate to deliver more efficient client service if the main trigger for reward is excessive hours on the clock. The scope to be innovative and creative gives much greater career satisfaction in the long term than achievement through the grind of long hours. It is important to find out whether the firm you choose, in practice as well as principle, shares your view of what is most important.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 seek to control working hours by capping them at an average of 48 hours per week and imposing rest-breaks and weekly days off. Under the opt-out option negotiated by the Government it is possible for employees to waive their rights. Some firms have decided that they will not seek opt-outs, considering them to be inconsistent with their overall philosophy.

Law Society statistics for 1999 tell us an interesting tale. Women now make up more than 35 per cent of all solicitors with practising certificates. In 1998/99, 53 per cent of admissions were women and there are now more women than men in the profession aged under 30. But proportionately, more male solicitors are partners – more than two thirds of women in private practice are assistants or associate solicitors. This discrepancy in status is not just because of the comparative youth of women solicitors – 85.5 per cent of male solicitors in private practice with 10-19 years experience were partners compared with 60.5 per cent of women with similar experience. For many women who have families, the time demands eventually make it impossible to continue. This means that there is a large pool of quality lawyers eventually lost from the profession.

Many men want to spend time with their families too and the law supports them. Parental leave rights were introduced by the Maternity and Parental Leave Regulations 1999 made under the Employment Rights Act 1996, which came into force on 15 December 1999. Parents are now entitled to up to 13 weeks unpaid leave before a child's fifth birthday.

Law firms are giving thought to how they can increase their attractiveness to women and men who want a long-term career in private practice but also intend to have families, see them from time to time, and do other things with their lives. Flexible working can help. For example, the ability to work part time for a period may be important. Whether this is realistic depends to some extent on the practice area – it is more difficult in corporate finance than it is in property. Also, the revolution in IT and communications has made working from home almost indistinguishable from being in the office.

Firms need to approach the delivery of client service flexibly. There are huge benefits. We have an assistant who seems to have achieved as much in practice development in three days a week as many do in five. And we have a partner who will be sailing around the world and working for her clients at the same time. True mobility, but rather her than me.

Peter Cooke is managing partner at Theodore Goddard