Partnerships need to wake up to the modern way

2007 sees the 85th anniversary of the admission of the first woman, Carrie Morrison, to the roll of solicitors. The Lawyer’s Career Report published last week brings us bang up to date with the latest statistics on female partnership prospects, which show that we are still far from equality: why?The main reasons are flexibility, maternity and a lack of networking opportunities.

Other substantial legal employers, such as government departments and large companies, manage these issues already. Despite initial reservations, the Government now meets the challenges of the political events of the day, and huge legal teams in multinationals such as Shell manage cross-border, billion-dollar businesses through a variety of working systems.

Although law firms cite client resistance to change, many shy away from actually discussing with clients how a project could be managed effectively through alternative work patterns. At a conference organised by the Association of Women Solicitors (AWS) and the Young Solicitors Group, Howard Taylor, senior legal counsel at Shell, said: “I really don’t mind whether the lawyer giving me advice is sitting in the office or working remotely at home in his pyjamas. It’s just not relevant.”

Some law firms that do offer flexible working say that take-up is poor. Could this be because the arrangements are either not managed well or are seen as career hara-kiri? Alternative work patterns are often at best seen as treading water rather than as a means of surging ahead. This raises another question: are women who strive for partnership receiving enough encouragement?”I’d been off for six months, but it was as if I’d suddenly slipped back down to two years’ PQE in the way I was treated,” says one disillusioned solicitor returning after maternity leave. Other female solicitors cite male-dominated client entertaining and the smaller number of networking opportunities available to them as obstacles.

Potential partners these days are not only expected to be technical superstars, but also to have an established client base. It is not just about feeling uncomfortable or excluded. One senior female associate who asked a male partner for advice about effective networking was told to “go for the uglier clients and flirt a bit. They really appreciate it, you know.”

More than 60 per cent of trainees are now women and it is predicted that they will become the majority of the profession. From a purely commercial perspective, can law firms afford to have such highly educated and expensively trained talent just sling its jacket over its shoulder and walk out?In any case, highly able men as well as women are part of the attrition rate. Having children is not the only reason for wanting to spend less time in the office – further study, charity work, sport or pursuing other interests also come high on the list. And even male solicitors vote with their feet when children come along and they discover the new challenges of family life.

There is also general disillusionment with the concept of partnership itself. There is an increasing perception that life as a partner is getting tougher, with a multitude of management issues on top of punishing hours.

Women do succeed in the face of apparent obstacles, and Fiona Fitzgerald, the current AWS vice-chairwoman, and Clare McConnell, the current deputy vice-chairwoman, have shown that, given willpower and determination, all things are possible. As well as helping other women solicitors through the AWS, they are young mothers and partners in law firms.

The AWS offers events and courses, a mentoring scheme and a maternity helpline. Several firms are also piloting maternity coaching and in-house mentoring schemes and are actively providing networking and business opportunities for their staff. Alternative work patterns should not just be equated with three days a week, but with a full range of options, such home working, project working and job-sharing.

Flexible working requires flexible thinking. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. Partnerships need a paradigm shift.