How law firms should be more flexible

It is accepted within private practice that recruiting female graduates into law firms is not an issue – Addleshaw Goddard‘s trainee intake is roughly 55 per cent female and was more than 50 per cent when I joined Theodore Goddard 18 years ago, and I am sure this is common in the City. The difficulty lies in creating an environment that retains, develops and supports female talent.

Some women reach a stage in their career when they want children and have to think about juggling family and career. This tends to be the typical point at which women leave the profession and/or the partnership ladder. The traditional law firm model, as we all know, charges out its lawyers at hourly rates – fees per associate therefore depend on hours spent working. Flexible working creates challenges in terms of balancing resources and servicing the client, and some firms seem unwilling to take up the challenge.

In this regard, Addleshaws decided to review and improve its retention rates and so set up a working group of partners and HR professionals. The group’s work to date has focused on the retention and advancement of women and in promoting a cultural evolution within the firm. The firm already includes senior women – currently it has two female board members, both of whom (including me) work flexibly. And 20 per cent of the partnership is female. However, it wanted to improve, and not just for its female employees, as many of the male employees are from two-career families or have childcare obligations and the pressures apply equally to them.

The group reviewed the firm’s family-friendly policies to ensure its approach to maternity and paternity leave, adoption leave, parental leave and flexible working requests reflected more closely the needs of the staff. The feedback was in favour of greater choice of flexible working arrangements and not simply standard part-time working hours. It publicised the variety of working arrangements within the firm, based around annualised hours, term time working, compressed hours and longer holiday arrangements, as well as part weeks. Many of these are worked by female partners, although two male partners also work flexibly, and it is vital that the firm offers flexible working and a real career for these arrangements to be accepted as a progressive and normal way of working. The firm is starting to see an increase in the number of people requesting flexible working for reasons other than those connected with childcare. No distinction is made on the basis of the reasons behind the request and each application is taken on its merits.

Another growing trend fuelled by the diversity debate has been an appreciation that a wider range of career options needs to be offered, as partnership is no longer the ‘Holy Grail’. The firm introduced the legal director role, which breaks the traditional career development path of associate through to partner by providing an alternative option for talented individuals. The role, which is not a bar to partnership, can be particularly attractive to senior women – 46 per cent of Addleshaws’ 22 legal directors are female. An example of how this can help lies with one partner who took a career break for full-time motherhood and, after a five-year break, returned to work and was offered an associate role working three days a week. She was appointed legal director in 2004 and promoted to partner in 2006.

Addleshaws has also developed an informal mentoring scheme for female associates in response to issues raised following a series of workshops held last year. Access to informal, confidential career support was one area highlighted. Furthermore, the firm has been working with practice groups where it can be particularly difficult, given the nature of the specialism, to work flexibly. The corporate team in particular has been incredibly receptive and willing to try out new ways of working.