Legislative change, government policies and a cultural shift are leading City firms such as Linklaters, Freshfields and Clifford Chance, to look at how to keep young professionals who want to enjoy both a career and a family. But firms are fearful of losing highly qualified and experienced lawyers who are voting with their feet.
Cameron McKenna is one firm that has spotted the trend. “The female population in City firms drops dramatically once they get to about four years of being qualified,” says personnel director John Renz.
“Many female lawyers are exercising their judgement with their feet and opting to go and work in-house somewhere because they feel they will be treated better once they have a kid.”
So after decades promoting a long-hours, office-bound culture, firms are learning to use the new buzzwords, such as “flexibility” and “family-friendly work practices”.
Just last week, The Lawyer revealed that Freshfields is offering equity partners up to 40 per cent of their time off in an effort to retain female staff. Linklaters, Cameron McKenna and Herbert Smith already have part-time partners.
To a certain extent case law, such as that set down in the Dekker case in 1991 that it was illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, has forced law firms to make allowances. But as ever, money sings with the loudest voice.
City of London Law Society chairman Tony Sacker says: “It's a bottom line issue which relates directly to profitability.
“Around 50 per cent of the new entrants into the legal profession are women and have been for the last 10 years. Just assume that half of those decide they want a family – that means 25 per cent of the available pool of senior lawyers are disappearing.”
It is widely recognised that lawyers, like any workers who invest time outside the office – in partnerships, children or even just hobbies – are more fulfilled, more capable of handling stress, and work better than their counterparts whose sole focus is work.
But although most big firms are realising their staff have other priorities, it is too early to identify a radical change.
Indeed Clifford Chance is thought to be considering changes to its maternity benefits policy which could mean up to 75 per cent of maternity pay is withheld until the employee returns to work.
Flexitime arrangements or part-time partnerships are changing the way lawyers work, but they are not necessarily impacting on the caseloads or amount of work to be done. And flexible work practices can actually increase demands.
Janet Gaymer, head of employment at Simmons & Simmons and a woman lawyer who rose to the top while raising two children, says: “The demands of the profession are much, much worse than they were. I blame it partly on increased technology.
“The pace of practice is so fast now with faxes, emails and mobile phones. Lawyers have lost the ability to control the way they work. When you add the demands of profit making, clients and the 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week climate, you can understand how hard it's become.”
One of the major stumbling blocks is that certain practice areas, by their very nature, make for highly unpredictable working hours.
“In something like corporate finance you could often be working through the night, closing a deal at 2am. Someone who works in that field and wants a young family might have to adapt so they are available if they have to work late,” says Sacker.
Angela Morgan, corporate finance partner at Theodore Goddard and chair of the Association of Women Solicitors, admits that some practice areas are especially demanding, but says that firms must ask themselves if they are working in the most efficient and productive ways.
“It's not in the interest of the solicitor or the client for a solicitor to work extremely long hours,” she argues.
The challenge is to find more creative solutions which involve the lawyer, the firm and the client.
Tony Sacker is optimistic that there is a way forward: “Once firms are prepared to subscribe to the principle [of flexibility], all sorts of methods can be found to enable it to work.”
But Morgan counsels firms against seeing part-time working as the simple solution. “There are a number of possible solutions, most of which involve offering a more flexible package, not just part-time working,” she says.
The commercial culture is the toughest to crack, but lawyers can ease the pressure by sharing duties, so they do not all have to be there all the time. Firms, for their part, can make sure staff get time off with the family after the deal is done.
Ironically, technology – which has accentuated the problem by enabling lawyers to work anywhere at any time – could also be part of the solution.
Langley & Co is one firm dedicated to the principle of flexibility, with partners able to work regularly from home using network technology. Anyone can have a complete IT package at home identical to their office setup.
Barnett Sampson, where four of the five partners are women, is another firm which has benefited from improved access to child care and technology. Partner Ellie Chapman comments: “People are prepared to [work long hours] because there is a way of making the juggle work. If their son's in the three-legged race on school sports day, they can do work in the evening.”
Langleys partner Jill Andrew, however, accuses many firms of “presentee-ism” – going through the motions of flexibility without committing to it in-depth and not trusting staff to arrange flexi-time professionally.
There is still a feeling that staff are not working to their full capacity if they are not doing it from an office desk.
It is not just firms that are having to change to accommodate new staff demands. Clients too are set to find that the legal world they are used to will have to change if experienced women lawyers are to remain involved in their work.
Clients are demanding more access and quicker advice, sometimes 24 hours a day, but Gaymer argues they “have to be educated as well. Everyone involved in a legal transaction has got to buy into this”.
While it is good business sense to keep improving service, firms have to be prepared to put their foot down at times for the sake of their staff.
Cameron McKenna's John Renz agrees: “Some of this is about the profession acting in concert with each other, putting their hands up and saying to clients that this is a bit unreasonable. The profession as a whole has to do it.”
This has not happened yet, and Renz comments that no one firm is willing to break rank.
Many young lawyers are looking for employers and clients to recognise that they have commitments and interests outside the office. In a society where women are still the primary carers, the issue is particularly relevant to them.
If, as Sacker claims, the legal profession is becoming increasingly dependant on women entrants then those professionals may well be choosing employers on the basis of how far they accommodate those demands.
It seems that firms may not only have to look imaginatively at internal structures, but also at how they deal with clients if flexible arrangements are to work.