Flexible friends

I spent a lot of last week speaking to senior female lawyers who have made a success out of working flexibly (see page 16). Not that the lawyers in question have ever made a big deal out of it; in virtually all cases it was a badge of honour to be as discreet as possible. Yet paradoxically it’s important that lawyers who do work reduced hours are visible enough to show that it can be done without bringing an organisation to its knees.

Space doesn’t permit us to run all their comments, but a theme soon emerged. They were all adamant that flexible working was not about fixed or rigid hours, but about give and take on both sides. Many argued that reduced days did not mean shirking evening events or weekend work where necessary.

The issue of gender bedevils this debate, although so long as women continue to be primary carers that’s not going to change any time soon. Much of the entirely laudable A&O flexible working scheme for partners is targeted at those with younger children, which is where the greatest pressures lie. However, those pressures never disappear: any ­parent will ruefully acknowledge that younger kids may require more time, but that teenagers require an awful lot more emotional support than babies. And caring responsibilities are not confined to those with children: over the next decade many of us are going to have to look after elderly parents.

There are signs at a number of firms that flexible working is starting to be extended to anyone with serious commitments outside work; perhaps ­academic, perhaps charitable, perhaps sporting.

I spoke to one lawyer who is a hockey player and whose flexible arrangement allows her to play at an elite level. Developments such as this will eventually move the debate away from ­gender – although we could do with some visible male role models.

One last thing. Among the women I spoke to last week there was something else that was striking: their pronounced loyalty to their organisations. They were actually among the happiest lawyers I have interviewed in years. Not because they were slacking, but because they could honour their ­commitments to clients, colleagues and family.

In their view, everyone wins.