Working out at working better

From lithe trainee solicitors trying to maintain their youthful fitness to tubby senior barristers seeking to shed fat as a New Year resolution, the legal profession is being consumed by the work-out bug.

Lawyers are heading for the gym in increasing numbers as they realise that staying healthy makes them enjoy life more and perform better at work. Legal firms are installing their own gyms, taking out corporate memberships of private health clubs and funding sports teams and keep-fit classes for staff.

Managing partners are happy to bear the extra costs because they too are beginning to see the benefits of keeping employees happy and in good condition.

Last month Allen & Overy's drive for fitter solicitors moved up a gear when its new full-time gym manager Nick Green began work. The firm's impressive workout room, previously run on a part-time basis by two members of legal staff, boasts treadmills, cycling and rowing machines, a full range of weightlifting devices, and is open for 24 hours a day.

Rodney Barker, director of business services, says: “It is fairly comprehensive. We asked experts what we should get in, they advised us, and we got it. It is extremely popular.”

Green, who used to work at a corporate in-house gym, says membership at Allen & Overy has risen to 600 out of the 1,600 staff, and that the take-up is rising, with between 60 and 75 staff visiting the gym each day. He notes one difference in particular in his new position: “Lawyers work far longer and their hours are more rigid.”

Other firms that have decided to install a gym on the premises include Denton Hall, Clifford Chance, Edward Lewis and Freshfields. At Edward Lewis, which boasts England rugby international Brian Moore among its partners, the keep-fit policy stems directly from the firm's sporting ethos.

“We are a young partnership and there are a lot of people who like to get involved,” says a spokesman.

Simon Dandy, gym manager at Freshfields, says its facility is so popular that out of the 1,100 staff based at the office, 465 are members. Between 80 and 100 individuals use it each day to work out. “We get a very good percentage using it and a broad cross-section. It is very encouraging,” he says.

Most gym managers design fitness programmes to suit the individual's lifestyle. Newcomers are given a test which takes into account factors like age, weight and blood pressure, and a manageable exercise routine is worked out.

Dandy points out that time is the biggest problem: “Everybody knows you should exercise, but it's hard to make it a priority when so many other things are going on.

“We run different programmes to help people adhere to exercise. One of the hardest things is making the decision to come and exercise. The other is to make it part of your routine. Once it's part of the routine and you start feeling the benefit, you're halfway there.”

The gym is run by a specialist contractor, Fitness for Industry, which operates more than 75 corporate gyms across the country. The firm buys the equipment and FFI supplies staff who are trained to get the best out of exercise-shy executives.

“It's hard to come to the gym,” Dandy says. “Most people find working out boring before you begin to feel the benefit. Having someone there to chat to makes it more fun and social and generally better for the person working out.”

Many legal practices are taking out corporate membership of external clubs near their offices. Although these clubs can be more costly, they usually offer more facilities and the chance to escape from the work environment.

One of the most popular is Cannons, with branches in the City and Covent Garden. The corporate bodies which make up 80 per cent of its total membership include law firms Denton Hall and Baker & Mackenzie. Chambers include Lincoln's Inn.

Under the most popular membership terms, firms pay in the region of £500 to £600 per member of staff to use a range of facilities, including a swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms, spas and sunbeds. For those opting for the most expensive membership category, there are corporate changing and lounge areas with kitchen facilities.

The gym usually forms the focal point for a whole range of sporting and social activities. At Denton Hall there is even a sports and social committee to co-ordinate activities.

Alan Williams, a media partner at the firm, presides over a panel of a dozen or so people who run internal sports activities ranging from football, cricket and rugby to bridge, table tennis and yoga.

“I encourage anyone who wants to set up a sport to come up with proposals, a budget and an indication of how many people would support them,” says Williams. “It may cost tens of thousands of pounds, but it is extremely popular. If it makes people happy and healthy, then it's money well spent.”

Most firms supplement their gym facilities with a range of classes held in the offices at lunch times and evenings.

At Freshfields there is also advice on diet and how to cut down on drink and cigarettes. Allen & Overy's staff restaurant, which is run by Leith's, makes a conscious effort to serve healthier food.

Like Williams, Barker is a great believer in the importance of a healthy lifestyle for work: “It's great for the morale of the firm, people enjoy it, and if you feel better, you work better.”