An ever increasing number of law firms and in-house teams are recognising the value of part-time working. Grania Langdon-Down reports.
In the highly competitive legal world, going part-time can be seen as a gamble in terms of future career prospects. But is that changing?
The long-hours culture in many law firms has seen lawyers wanting to reduce their hours for family or other reasons pushed into support lawyer roles and off the promotion track.
But increasingly, in-house teams are embracing part-time working to ensure they attract and keep talented staff. Opportunities are also growing at senior levels to work flexibly as consultants.
So what are employers doing to meet client demands for instant responses without sidelining valuable staff in terms of quality of work, promotion and feeling part of the team?
More than a quarter of the lawyers employed by the Government Legal Department (359 out of 1,253) work part-time, including job shares.
Treasury Solicitor Jonathan Jones encourages applications from people at all levels of seniority who want to work flexibly. All internal postings take account of individual working patterns.
‘Where people ask to change their working pattern,’ he says, ‘we look at each case individually and only refuse if there are good business reasons to do so.’
James Berkeley, Unilever’s general counsel Europe, heads a legal team of 46. Nine, including four lawyers, work what he describes as ‘reduced hours’, which means generally taking half or one day off a week. This avoids any ‘potentially negative’ connotations about part-time, he says, as ‘our team very much works full-time for the hours to which they have committed’.
He says the primary consideration is – can the person get the job done? ‘What is then important is the cover and depth of your team; if you build a team with transferable core skills and expertise, others can step in to help if necessary,’ he says. ‘It would be harder for it to work in a smaller company with only one or two lawyers.’
Jacqui Rook, CEO of London real estate specialists Brecher Solicitors, is looking at what sets a niche firm apart in the way it works (more partner-led, fewer pyramid structures, more entrepreneurial clients) and how that would fit with flexible working. ‘There are 85 of us,’ Rook says, ‘so we are of a size to say to our staff “how would you like to work?”.’
The firm already has a number of partners and senior associates who work part-time. ‘It is easier among more senior lawyers, where there aren’t supervision issues, and in non-contentious work,’ she says. ‘But then our head of property litigation works a four-day week with the support of a very good assistant, and that works well.’
What is difficult, she feels, is to have job shares: ‘You have to read into a file when you come in but you can’t charge that to the client’.
For Lewis Silkin, which is split into two divisions (employment and ‘creative’, covering brands and IP) supporting non-standard hours is healthy for the firm.
A third (37) of its 120-strong employment division work part-time. ‘Our starting point,’ says employment partner Russell Brimelow, ‘is that we have masses of talent in the “working mum” population who we are very keen to keep in the team and who want to maintain their careers but may not be able to work full-time.
‘But we also have younger lawyers who aren’t parents and older people who work part-time because they want to do other things as well as law.’
Brimelow practises what he preaches, working on an 80% basis. His passions are music and cycling so, rather than take a day off a week, he tends to ‘bank’ days and take them at a quieter time of year.
He runs the firm’s Oxford office with 22 lawyers. ‘We have some doing straight four-day weeks,’ he says. ‘Others come in late and go early and work a four-day week over five days. Others work 70% as a mixture of the two.’
The key, he says, is to manage client demand and be collaborative as a team, so people are willing to pick up work so it is managed seamlessly.
- Any employee can ask their employer informally for more flexibility.
- Qualifying employees have a statutory right to make a formal flexible working request: see www.gov.uk/flexible-working/overview.
- Employees refused statutory, or informal, flexible working requests may also make discrimination claims linked to a ‘status’ protected by discrimination legislation.
- Self-employed traditional partners, members and consultants may also make discrimination claims if requests for flexibility are refused.
- Discrimination claims are often made against named individuals as well as the firm itself. A limited liability LLP structure does not protect individual members from this sort of claim.
- Additional legislation offers further protection in relation to some types of flexible working arrangement, for example part-time, fixed-term, agency or ‘zero-hours’ work.
– Source: Juliet Carp, Dorsey & Whitney (Europe)
But it does not stop there. The firm has been tapping into lawyers’ wishes to work part-time to provide clients with cost-effective support. Its flexible resourcing team Lewissilkinhouse has about a dozen lawyers of varying seniority who go on secondment to clients.
‘It appeals to lawyers who like to do project work and then take a total break,’ Brimelow explains. ‘This way, they remain our employees so they come to our training and strategy weekends. They receive all the normal benefits but are only paid when they are on secondment.’
A second model is called Rockhoppers, which grew out of work the employment team was doing for relatively low-margin employers, such as major retailers, who do not need a dedicated lawyer or team.
By staffing this with lawyers who only want to work a few hours a week, Brimelow says they can provide those clients with a helpline at a relatively low rate. The lawyers also run employment tribunal cases on a low-margin basis.
So far, about a dozen lawyers have transferred to Rockhoppers, effectively employed on an hourly rate. These include previous employees who moved away for personal reasons but, because they can work remotely, have returned.
‘We have one in France, one in Scotland, another in Yorkshire,’ says Brimelow. ‘The beauty for the individual lawyers is they remain part of our team so they get all of the training, they maintain friendships and, eventually, they may want to rejoin our core team.’
For others wanting to rebalance their life, becoming part of a legal support consultancy is proving a popular model. But is there a stigma to stepping off the traditional career ladder? There was a reluctance among some male consultants to talk to the Gazette because they were worried how they would look in the market. But others see no stigma in taking the opportunity to stay active in the market around their personal commitments.
The legal support business Obelisk has more than 800 City-trained lawyers on its books and was recently named one of The Times’s top 50 employers for women.
CEO Dana Denis-Smith created the model in 2010 because she was staggered at the number of women leaving the profession when they started a family and how little employers did to stop them.
There is often a negative correlation between commitment and working part-time, she says, though that is ‘not unique’ to law firms. The way Obelisk works is to help people remain economically active by working around their commitments and not being pigeon-holed.
‘The key,’ she says, ‘is to be very communicative, so those you work with know how you work and when you work and buy into that pattern.’
The in-house legal support consultancy Halebury was founded in 2007 by former in-house lawyers Janvi Patel and Denise Nurse as an alternative career path for senior counsel.
About three-quarters of its 30 lawyers are women, but Patel says the pipeline of new recruits is more evenly mixed. All trained in big law firms and have 10 years’-plus in-house experience.
‘Our lawyers want to work on major transactions and high-value propositions,’ she says, ‘but they may choose to work flat out on a major project and then take time out or work on something three days a week over the summer and go back to five days in the autumn.’
It is not for everyone, she says: ‘You need to be a self-starter, entrepreneurial and confident… this is also your business and your brand.’
Patel works flexibly from Los Angeles and does not see any stigma in part-time working. ‘These are senior lawyers who value their reputation,’ she says. ‘They haven’t sold out by going part-time. They retain their credibility in the market because of the value of the projects they do.’
So what are the pros and cons? ‘Having a flexible working policy helps attract new talent and retain existing staff,’ Berkeley says. ‘One of our team worked four days a week for the last 10 years but has now gone back to five days as family commitments have evolved.’
But it does require a conscious effort from employers to ensure those working part-time do not feel isolated. ‘You do have to focus on ensuring part-time workers are kept in touch with office developments as well as managing their performance,’ Jones agrees.
‘Our aim is to make sure that nobody misses out. We encourage good communication between the job-holder and the manager, with regular one-to-ones and teleconferencing. All our people have access to the GLD intranet and we encourage managers to arrange team sessions on days when the majority of staff are available to attend.’
The hardest thing, says Berkeley, is for lawyers to stick to their days, which requires discipline and assurance. Good work is a ‘magnet’, he says, and ‘it doesn’t stop being demanding just because you aren’t in that day’.
But there is a risk of becoming demotivated if you continuously work on your day off, so Berkeley says it is important to find the right balance between sticking to a routine that clients understand and being flexible in an emergency.
Lawyers are increasingly judged by their ‘responsiveness’, agrees Juliet Carp, employment law specialist at Dorsey & Whitney (Europe). ‘There is no easy fix to this but all lawyers can do more to help each other mitigate the impact of this increasingly “on demand” culture.’
Ironically, she says, having less time ‘can sometimes make us better lawyers’ because, out of necessity, ‘you have to have a clearer focus on key issues and you naturally develop better scoping skills’.
Working part-time with a young family can come at a critical time in a lawyer’s career and is often cited as the reason so few women reach partnership. But does going part-time have to stall your career?
Jones rejects any notion that working part-time in his team is career-limiting. ‘GLD’s aim is that no one misses out in any way because of their work patterns,’ he stresses.
However, Brecher Solicitors’ Rook says it would be ‘naive’ to say it doesn’t have an impact on individual progress in large firms where there are rafts of lawyers at the same level.
‘It doesn’t in ours,’ she says, ‘because we are split 50/50 and can see the value of each individual. For me it is about productivity and about making a good environment which benefits us from a commercial point of view.’
‘Part-time is definitely not a career killer here,’ Lewis Silkin’s Brimelow says. ‘Ours is a very practice-led approach so James Davies, our divisional managing partner, is on a 95% contract. But we also have one-year-qualified lawyers working four days a week. Just because you are part-time doesn’t mean you aren’t fully committed to the job.’
For businesses wanting to test the water, Berkeley says: ‘Try it in short-term arrangements, such as maternity cover, where you could test whether a job share would still deliver the customer service required. Start with roles that have a greater degree of predictability in terms of timelines and deliverables.’
The message from Brimelow is – be bold. ‘It is time for the legal profession to embrace ways of working which don’t involve forcing people to sit in a particular chair at the end of a long commute. We will be missing a trick if we exclude people by not being flexible.’
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist
Zoe Gascoyne, 39, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, has worked four days a week since her children were born.
‘Working less than that would be too stressful,’ says Gascoyne, a partner with Liverpool firm Quinn Melville, ‘because I wouldn’t feel I was achieving all I wanted and I would constantly be chasing my tail. I do overcompensate for being off but that is a choice I make.’
Going part-time should never be an end to a career, she says. ‘I have never been made to feel I had to step back from the better work. My senior partner is very supportive and it allows me to be a career woman and a mum.’
Susanna Speirs, 36, joined Unilever UK in 2014 as legal counsel after four years at Arsenal Football Club. The job was initially advertised as full-time but, knowing she wanted to work part-time after her second child, Unilever offered it to her on a four-day-a-week basis, including one day from home.
‘Working four days a week is perfect for me,’ she says. The quality of her work has not been affected and her internal clients view her as ‘almost full-time, which I am not sure they would if I only worked three days’. Matters can generally wait for her return, so it rarely impacts on other team members.
She ‘treasures’ the time it gives her with her children. Catching up with work some evenings is more than worth it for the flexibility, she says.
She was promoted to senior legal counsel, UK & Ireland, in January 2015.
Unilever is ‘very pro agile working’, she says, so working part-time ‘is not seen as taking your foot off the pedal’.
Oliver Lewis, 46, combines working as a consultant solicitor advocate with local politics and university teaching.
A former partner in leading London criminal practices, he had been office-based for 20 years. In 2012, he and his wife Katy Thorne, a criminal barrister at Doughty Street, decided that, with three children, they wanted more flexibility ‘so when she is off round the country doing her big cases I could be here’.
His consultancy with Manchester-based Olliers and with three London practices allows Lewis time to get more involved in politics as a local councillor and teach criminal law at the University of East London.
‘The key is to know you are recognised for doing quality work,’ he says. ‘This allows you to have the confidence to continue working as a lawyer outside a salaried structure.
‘This was a way of becoming freer. There is still an element of vicariousness in getting the children to school, the two of us to court and being home at the right time but it works for us.’
Faridah Eden, 42, deputy director at the Department of Education, joined the Government Legal Service in 1999 after training at Freshfields. She first went part-time in 2010 on her return from her second maternity leave. As head of the constitutional law team at the MoJ, she worked four days a week.
‘It was a fully loaded job but the people I was working with knew me and had confidence I could make it work. I was also the senior person so I could create a culture where everyone took responsibility for the work so people below me could also work part-time.’
It was exhausting, she admits, but it was about being organised.
In 2011, she moved to the Attorney General’s office to head the civil lawyers’ team. Advertised as a full-time post, she argued she could do it in four days.
Having lead both a legislative and a co-ordinating team, she wanted to develop her career by taking on ‘something bigger and more operational’, so in 2014 she moved to the DfE where she heads the team dealing with academies and free schools.
With her youngest starting school, she began sitting on her day off in the Mental Health Tribunal. ‘Part-time became less about family and more about broadening my experience,’ she says.
Last month (April) she started a three-day-a-week job share so she can sit in the Special Educational Needs Tribunal as well.
‘I have never felt working part-time was seen as a lack of commitment or prejudicial to my career. The service has invested a lot in me and I know the work and the people so it works for both of us. What the Treasury Solicitor is doing is creating a culture where this style of working is the norm.’