Opinion: Law firms’ flexible working policies – could do better

Kim Tasso

Most working parents realise that a four-day week means pay is cut by 20 per cent to manage the same workload, as well as ’that little bit extra’ to make up for a perceived lack of commitment. Some parents return to find they have been generously allocated a new role, for example in professional support, to ’accommodate’ their flexible working. Some call this constructive dismissal.

The ’protect the billable hours’ practice of scheduling meetings either at dawn or dusk means lives are filled with ­unproductive negotiations with grumpy childcarers or indignant spouses. The European Working Time Directive made nannies who can start at 7am and work till 10pm extinct – but somehow working ­parents are expected to find loopholes.

Working with kids is no tea party. Every day is tense as you know what must be done before cut-off time, when you must leave to prevent your childcarer entering meltdown. You race from the office, grabbing files to read overnight and exchanging ­messages on the phone and Outlook.

The rail services maintain your high blood pressure as the inevitable delays mean you reach home within a gnat’s hair of nanny-leaving time. Then you slap on a smile as you read bedtime stories for the little darlings before you can prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. Just as their eyes finally shut, your colleague phones to ­discuss a key point and you start over. When you finally fall exhausted into bed at 3am you are awoken by bad dreams (the child’s, not yours). Morning starts with guilt generated by tearful faces as you abandon them to skip out of the house the moment nanny pulls onto the drive.

Sisterly solidarity? I don’t think so. Many senior women remember the tough time they had battling through the glass ceiling and see no reason to make it easier for today’s mums. It’s “character building”, they say. Even Generation X roll their eyes and moan about the “extra cover” they must do while the mums leave to collect their children. What about respect for life choices? Do mums begrudge the extra effort covering their child-free colleagues’ unproductive mornings nursing hangovers or afternoons commiserating about bad boyfriends over chocolate cake?

There’s gender bias too. When a female leaves the office to collect her child there are sideways glances – she puts her kids before her career and, more importantly, the firm. When a male does the same, people smile – how sweet. And how modern.

A female worker struggles through the commuter crush with child in tow because all the support systems have collapsed. Heads shake at her inability to be properly organised. A male worker does the same and everyone helps amuse the offspring for a fun day of distraction.

The women in the legal sector are ­intelligent. Perhaps the reason that so many leave is because they’re smart enough to know that the entrenched ­attitudes mean it’s easier to have a ­satisfying career and earn a decent living in a different sector, where they don’t have to hide the small people in their lives.

At a listed company a female board member never arrives before 10am and always leaves at 5.30pm – and she works four days a week. Her bonus is protected in view of the high cost of a full-time nanny. She has a dedicated PA (others share) to pick up the pieces of her time-constrained life. Board meetings during the school ­holidays are avoided. The view of the chairman is that this is acceptable if quality women directors are to be encouraged in the industry. Now that’s flexible working.