Part-time schemes help firms keep female partners working

Caroline Stroud

Research by The Lawyer has revealed a direct ­correlation between a high take-up of flexible working schemes and a high ­number of female partners, although this does not feed through to equity partner representation.

Despite figures from the Law Society showing that an average of 25 per cent of partners across all UK firms are women, just eight of the top 50 UK firms by revenue have that level or more. When it comes to the equity partnership, just five firms have a female representation of 25 per cent or more.

As revealed last week (27 January), the top 50 firm with the highest level of female partners, Berrymans Lace Mawer (BLM), also has the highest percentage of partners working part-time: 14 per cent of the firm’s partners work part-time, while 35 per cent of partners are women. Its equity partnership is 28 per cent female.

Some of the firms with the lowest proportions of female partners also have fewer part-time partners. At Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith and Taylor Wessing, 12, 14 and 11 per cent respectively of all partners are women. The respective percentages for partners working part-time at these firms is 2, 4 and 3 per cent.

Freshfields was a pioneer of partner flexible working, introducing a scheme in May 1999. But employment partner Caroline Stroud admitted: “We know that further improvements are needed to increase gender diversity at partner level and we’re working hard to do so through a variety of measures. A review of our flexible working schemes for everyone, including partners, is just one part of our gender diversity initiative.”

Allen & Overy (A&O), where 15 per cent of partners are women, has had individual partners working part-time for some time. It recently designed a formal scheme offering part-time working to all partners from 1 May in a bid to retain more senior women.

A&O capital markets partner Geoff Fuller, chair of the steering committee for the scheme, said: “The driver was, ‘Why do good female associates leave and not come through to partnership?’. It’s because the time when they’re having to make the case for partnership [often] coincides with the time when they’re ­starting a family. The idea is to ease that pressure.”

The Lawyer’s research supports this view. For example, 17 per cent of the women who left Taylor Wessing in the past year did so to start families.

Clare McConnell, chair of the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS), said it is not only the individual employee who loses out, but also the employer, which suffers financially, and in her view traditional working practices are partly to blame.

Other firms are starting to look more seriously at part-time working. Norton Rose, where 17 per cent of partners are female, ­recently finalised ‘Flex’, a scheme that saw non-partners working four-day weeks to save jobs during the recession.

However, there is not always a direct correlation between high levels of take-up and high levels of women in the partnership. Burges Salmon, which at 13 per cent has the ­second-highest take-up rate on part-time working of all the firms surveyed, had only 13 per cent female ­representation on its ­partnership in the 2008-09 financial year.

The Lawyer surveyed the largest 50 UK firms; 25 responded, all of which said they had partners working part-time.