Kim Tasso, founder, Practical Marketing Consultancy

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

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  • Interesting piece. The point about gender differences in attitudes to men and women taking time out for kids is well-taken, but I think the 'extra effort' coping with colleagues' hangovers and cake-related counselling, for instance, is overplayed.
    Having worked in a group with several women all working part-time, there was never, ever any flexibility on their part about hours (understandably; as the author points out there is very little time to rush back before the nanny departs) and lots of instances of extra time having been taken during the day when kids were ill, sports days, nativity plays, parent-teacher stuff etc.
    Add that to the part-time working and I'm afraid that childless people were always covering for the part-timers, both at either end of their fixed hour days and during their days off, something which I can't remember being reciprocated on a single occasion.
    Interestingly, when my own (exploratory) request to go part-time was heard, it was deemed to not be in the interests of the business, because there were already too many part-timers...
    'Respect for life choices' is one thing, but when there is no reciprocation, no respect for one's own life choices, it's quite a tough ask. Having kids is, after all, a choice, one which is accompanied not only by the manifold joys of having children, but also via the tax and benefits system.
    You might say - not without some justification - that the 'system' is already stacked in favour of people without kids in terms of promotion, but surely creating a 'level' playing field removes the choice advantages of not having kids, and therefore amounts to positive discrimination.
    The author's example of the female board member is interesting. Fixed hours, part-time, no meetings during school hols: sounds more like Inflexible working...

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  • KIm- your insight and description is spot on with my experience when I was a non mum lawyer watching the way mums at work were treated. In my experience- it was always ok for Generation X to have rolled in at midday after the night before frolicking with Partners and clients (a frolick not always to celebrate a deal).....but come in late because your child was unwell....tut tut tut. You should write more on the topic as the law needs frank women like you.

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  • My partner's law firm agreed to flexible working when she returned to work, but refused to enshrine in her amended contract of employment any entitlement to payment or time off in lieu for those occasions on which she will be asked to work on her day "off". Naturally, they were not so shy about ensuring that the 20% pay reduction was reflected in the revised contract. So, the deal is, you can have flexible working, but just don't expect to be paid on those occasions when you are asked to work on your day 'off' even with all the added expense and hassle involved in rearranging childcare for that day. It is a Tribunal case waiting to happen.

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  • I agree with a lot of this article - particularly the differences in attitude towards men and women with children. And when I wasn't a mum, I never felt bitter about "having to cover" for those going home to nativity plays etc - I felt sorry for them having to endure such rubbish (this was before I realised that if your own child is in it, it's brilliant!).
    However, at the risk of being one of those bitchy women who won't help their own, I think a lot of working mums take the mickey. For example, if you are asked to come in on your day off. Nobody is asking you to do it for nothing, you'll get paid or a day off in lieu. But if you are needed for training, then you should be able to arrange childcare with enough notice. I very much doubt that there are many cases where people genuinely couldn't arrange extra childcare with say a month's notice of a training day or the Christmas dinner.
    I also think that maternity benefits should only be paid for up to two babies. How can employers function when their employees go off for a year at a time several times every 18 months or so? I do believe that dads should be able to share maternity leave, but I don't see why employers and taxpayers should bear the burden of peoples' desire to have so many kids - surely two are enough, and if not, pay for them yourself.

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  • Helen, on your comment,
    "For example, if you are asked to come in on your day off. Nobody is asking you to do it for nothing, you'll get paid or a day off in lieu"...
    That is precisely my point - at least one law firm I know of will not give a contractual right to payment or time off if you are asked to come in on your day off. That is the employer taking the proverbial, not the employee.

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  • Why do these kinds of pieces always focus only on the role of women in bringing up children? There are many other difficult life situations where law firms could be more flexible, and these situations affect men as well as women. I am a male partner in a large law firm who is trying to take care of my aged mother who has Parkinson's Disease, which creates significant stress. I find that the women at work generate a considerable amount of sympathy when they speak of situations where they have to take time off to be with their children, but people become very uncomfortable if I tell them that I need to take time off to care for my mother. I end up having to cope with this situation by myself with little support from others. We all have to cope with difficult situations in life in which flexibility from our employers is warranted, and this goes far beyond women taking care of their children.

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  • One can only conclude that law firms don't see a compelling business case for accommodating working mothers, otherwise they would do so.

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  • To Anon at 1.20 16 Feb - ok I stand corrected. Although I am not sure it has to be contractual - I spent over two years working 8.30-5 for a firm that said in my contract that I had to work 9-5.30. I left at 5 so that I could do the nursery pick-up. They wouldn't put the revised hours in my contract. It was never a problem though, but I realise it will depend on the firm.

    To Anon at 2.11 I totally agree that the debate always comes back to women with children. Dads and men with caring responsibilities should also be considered.

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  • Its the presence of commenters like Helen and the chap who has caring responsibilities that this issue is watered down and will never be solved. Having a baby and looking after one is not the same as being a carer to an old woman. Your aged mother can get a a carer and has a whole sense of vulnerabilities that a child does not. Your old mother does not need you- but a child needs its mother. The latter is a little thing that needs its parents for development at every stage. Having a child is a responsibility. You do not just have a child and the choose who can look after it according to its needs. They are not clauses in a contract that can be looked at by different departments- children need continuity of care. Its a totally different situation to an aging mother. Please give me break on these parallels. Helen- the whole point is that most employers do not give money to make up for working days that are supposed to be off. Further as a woman its very sad that you think a dad with a caring responsibilty to an aging mother (the latter who has lived a huge part of her life and certainly should not be needing her son on a daily basis as much as an infant needs a parent) is the same as a woman who has a career and a baby- very very sad.

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  • Actually I was going to post that I thought that as a partner, he could afford to pay for proper care for his mother and didn't need to do it himself. However, I thought that was a bit harsh, in the same way that it would be harsh to say to a woman in the City that they can afford to pay for a nanny. And actually, a baby/young child is probably very happy with their carer, because that's what they know. It's different for a lonely old lady who probably does want her son. I think carers of adult relatives should have the same or similar rights to carers of children.

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  • I am, frankly, appalled by the Kidocentric view of some of the posters on here who seem to believe that caring for kids is the only legitimate reason for flexibility. For those of us without kids, our issues are just as important, thanks very much.
    For instance, one of my best friends - someone I consider family - had a heart op last year and I needed flexibility to visit hospital and run some errands. My boss - who is brilliant - fully understood that to me, that was a necessary part of my life and my arrangements. Yes, my choice, but kids are a choice too.
    I feel very sorry for the partner with the mother who is ill. Having also done some caring for an elderly relative, I'm very aware of just how difficult and sad that can be, especially when there is no chance it will get better.
    The Anonymous poster who claims that other people's needs and life circumstances are 'watering down' this issue is out of order, and typical of the high-minded, egocentric and disrespectful attitude of so many of today's overcompensating parents.

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  • The wider point which is addressed (rather well) by this article is that while the female lawyer with a new baby is the paradigm example of firms' inflexibility in relation to employees' personal lives, there are many other situations in which firms could take a more proactive stance to support their employees. I feel for the partner caring for his mother, it's a hard thing to do. And one that (just like bringing up children) can be made a lot easier by a more understanding attitude from the firm. However in order to receive that sort of understanding, all recipients of flexible working need to ensure that they do not take advantage of it. It should be a reciprocal arrangement - and not a "work to rule" with the "rights" re flexibility enshrined in the contract which appears to be what some posters want.

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  • Kim: brilliant article; thank you. You actually ran the HR department at the firm I articled with many moons ago and I have great memories of you. I am struggling to balance my career with the demands of single motherhood and I do hope other voices will add to the valid points you are making regarding proper flexible working arrangments for mums as well as other caregivers. Keep up the pressure Kim!!

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  • I was rather hoping that the recession would bring an end to self-indulgent whingeing such as this. We all make choices in life. And life generally isn't fair. Deal with it. Mind you, it's considerably fairer to the likes of the author than it is to people lower down the social spectrum. Only a very small minority of employers can afford to be as generous to their female employers as the employer described at the end of the article.
    What's so bad incidentally about giving up work for a while and actually looking after your children properly? And if the woman is so well-paid and her husband less so, then the husband gives up work instead. If neither option is palatable and you're going to whinge like this, why bother with children at all?
    It's a very strange society we have created, I have to say. One day people will actually get real.

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  • Putting everyone else requiring flexi working under the same umbrella as parents (both men and women) who want to look after their young child does not sit right with me but if lawyers really are as parent caring and dog caring and best friend caring as they seem to be by these comments lets address each one in a separate bracket. The thing about women and their rights to be child carers and lawyers is that it touches a gender issue. Yes being a parent is a choice- but this issue of choice only seems to be one you lose out on if you choose it in the legal profession. Most other professions may not throw as much money as law firms do for maternity but they actually do not punish you as much for making your "choice".

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  • I agree with MM. The choices are yours to make and there is no reason why the firm must go out of its way to change it entire way of working just to accomodate everyone's personal lives. If someone is important enough then maybe you just have to make adjustments and maybe take a break or take the temporary hit to your career. At the end of the day its not fair on the rest of the team to have its work held up till 11AM simply because you had drop your kids off for soccer practice or whatever and then have to work till the wee hours of the morning while you get to leave at 6. And really, we don't get to spend hours commiserating over ex-boyfriends. Not without getting serious flak for it anyway!

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  • I'm afraid I agree with Big Dave. As a full time working mother, I have accepted that I have to prove my worth to my employers each and every day to remain secure in my job - and I pay my nanny a big salary to cover long hours. People will only cut you slack re. childcare issues where you have demonstrated that you will pull your weight in the team the rest of the time. Otherwise you become a drain on everyone else.

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  • It's amazing to think that so many people consider career choices and procreation to have an apparent equal standing. I am pretty sure I know which came first, and which retains a primary role. Unfortunately, the "have it all" element of the feminist movement in the latter part of the 20th Century has played into the hands of governments which are more than happy for men and women to contribute equally to the tax coffers. So, now, we have a culture based on work being the primary goal in life (whether through choice in the form of a career or base necessity), and all other aspects of life seem to be come the "choices" of individuals, which others in the workplace see as detracting from their own aims in the workplace. As someone wise once said, the problem with "success" in the workplace, is that it is defined by people who are workaholics. Lawyers often fall neatly into this stereotype and, as a result, seem to lose some of their humanity, seeing those who look for flexible working (for whatever reason) as somehow dragging everyone else down. A career ought to be more than just putting time in, but seeing the wider value of the work itself in the context of the society it inhabits. Or, in other words, no man (or woman) is an island. So deal with it.

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  • Hurray for Tom's comments. I too am baffled by this dismissive attitude towards procreation as a "lifestyle choice". And of course parents should put their children's wellbeing before their career or, God forbid, the firm. Wouldn't they be rather warped indidiuals if they did not?!

    By the way, to put my comments in context, I work full time and do not have kids.

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  • It's all about attitude. In my experience flexible working has flourished where there has been willingness on both sides to adapt. Most flex workers, regardless of gender, realise that they are likely to have to put in more hours proportionally, in the same way that most companies realise there is a benefit to retaining talented people balanced against a cost in that their arrangements have to be catered for.
    The problem comes when people take the benefits of flexible working as a right, without accepting the negatives. Firms have to protect themselves against the small proportion of staff who are self-indulgently self-centred in their approach and that sadly affects the rest of us.

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  • In my experience, women with children (as it always is) working part-time tend to be under much more stress on the days they do work and have to stop in the office later than their full time colleagues. What annoys me about this article is the fact that it is centred on women with children - are childless women and men not allowed to have a quality of life and work part-time?

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  • I want a successful legal career.

    I want children.

    I do however realize that these goals may at times conflict with one another.

    Life is all about sacrifices though. The last thing I expect is for others to bear the sacrifices resulting from my individual choices. Prioritize and concede on lesser matters, lose the battle to win the war so to speak. If you can't afford to sacrifice by virtue of necessity or longing - work harder. It's a shame qualities like modesty and appreciation for
    what one has are eroding.

    We live in a very fortunate society whereby we are as free as peoples have ever been to achieve our goals. The resulting abundance of opportunities then should be appreciated by selective choice rather than exploited to capitalize on as many as possible.

    It's very self-defeating to impose your wants as needs on others.

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  • I think this is a really badly written article for a start - 'our multi degree education and decades of work experience' - why on earth would the writer assume that this statement applies to all mothers in the legal industry?
    If you have a job that clashes with your personal life you make a choice. Unfortunately that's the way life works. I am a female lawyer without children but I am fully prepared to make the choice when my time comes to start a family.
    What about other professions, female soldiers or air hostesses? When the time comes for them to have children they make a choice. They can either go out and fight in foreign country for six months with a two year old at home or they take on another role.
    If you don't want to make a choice why are you in the profession in the first place? Who can honestly say that when considering your career choices you didn't realise that there would be a clash with family life if you worked for a big multi-national corporate practice? If you didn't you clearly didn't research your chosen career properly.

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  • It's good to see articles like this provoking debate - why are people so keen to turn their careers into their lives? I am more than just the sum total of my parts and I'm certainly more than just my career. what do you want your tombstone to read "Good Lawyer. Never left the office early, never arrived late"? Presentee-ism isn't all it's cracked up to be and I feel quite sorry for those commenting above for whom it seems to be all-important.
    I'd rather be judged on the quality of my work and I make sure I work in an environment where that is what matters. I'm going to enjoy my life (no kids yet, but plenty of other things going on) while I can. As a very good friend advised me years ago, when you're old and infirm, you're not going to be looking back thinking, 'damn, I wish I'd worked harder', but more likely, 'damn, I should have had more fun and shagged around!' Whether that's your thing or not, why give up your life for a career? It is possible to have both. You may even be happier for it.

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