Work-life balance of power

UK firms tempt top talent with lifestyle sweeteners to combat the mighty US dollar

The legal market may be saturated, but pulling in the top guns is still a tricky business. The brand power of elite UK firms appear to be losing its edge as US firms glint with fat wads of cash and promises of more responsibility.

What’s a firm to do? In comes flexible working, the magic circles’ answer to US competition. Last week, Allen & Overy (A&O) launched a programme to tap into its alumni network by sourcing senior associates and partners, all of whom will be paid at similar levels to permanent members of staff, on a freelance basis.

“The idea is to make sure our best people, who may just want to focus on legal work and have less interest in the other aspects of being a lawyer, or may want more flexibility, can stay in touch,” said managing partner Wim Dejonghe on the day of the launch. “[..] in a low-growth environment […] we need greater flexibility.”

The scheme, branded Peerpoint, arrives a year after Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer launched a similar service, Freshfields Continuum, under which former partners and associates could work for the firm on flexible contracts. 

And it’s not just the magic circle trying to weave their magic. At least three-quarters of the UK’s top 50 have introduced flexible working programmes in recent years, hammering home the impression that UK firms are more focused on staff welfare than their US rivals. 

That stereotype has led to the usual gender struggles in the market, with The Lawyer’s 2013 associate survey revealing that around 86 per cent of female respondents currently at a UK firm had never interviewed at a US firm, compared with 72 per cent of men. Not one female associate chose Davis Polk & Wardell as their number one ‘would-join’ firm, despite its UK office paying NQs £100,000 a year. Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, which pays NQs over £94,250, got just 7 per cent of votes from female associates, compared with 16 per cent from men. 

So it makes sense for firms that can’t match those salaries to attract top lawyers with a work-life balance offering. Flexible working looks set to be the next big thing.