Studies of how men and women behave in the workplace suggest men are more likely to ask for what they want than women. Our Rocket Women posts shine a light on women who have asked for something in their professional life that has had a significant impact on their career. We hope they fuel your resolve to ask for what you need to get on.
Head in Macbook in a Waterstones café writing a pitch for a maternity comeback coaching contract at a company head quartered near my office, I overhear a woman’s conversation with a recruitment consultant. Her Blackberry is wedged between shoulder and ear in the way that makes chiropractors contort their faces and wag their fingers. Her hands are literally full; of happy baby and bottle with mustardy poo smeared up her back (baby not mother) and a grin on her face.
The phonecall finishes and I pop across to say hello on my way out as I’m sure I recognise her. A conversation long enough to turn the smeared poo from runny looking to ‘caked on’ ensues and I discover she’s a lawyer having a hard time being shortlisted for interview because she’s currently on maternity leave. In the words of the recruitment consultant ‘not being in a job at the moment isn’t very attractive to recruiters.’ Forget that she’s spot on skill wise and available now for both interview and the job if successful. This is ridiculous!
However, I’m not dwelling on that particular madness in this article (and it could be an isolated incident). What’s not an isolated incident and is costing law firms hundreds of thousands of pounds in recruitment fees not to mention hassle, loss of knowledge and potentially bottom line success [i] is the haemorrhaging of talented female lawyers because firms aren’t, on average, supporting flexible working. Apparently it’s about the clients; clients need and want constant access to their lawyers. I think that’s an excuse and one that’s out-dated, unhelpful and unreflective of what clients really want.
I set out to find some lawyers – the bright sparks of hope – who have secured flexible working as a way to open other senior lawyers’ minds as to what can be gained by embracing part time working. Within minutes of putting out my request Emily Watson of Rayden Solicitors – a Hertfordshire firm founded by mother of three Katherine Rayden and shortlisted for a Law Society Excellence Award last year for their progressive employment policies – and I were talking. Emily is a family litigator, a fast paced role involving clients going through very difficult times and often needing their solicitor at the end of the phone.
80% of Rayden’s people work flexibly and there’s no resentment when Emily’s not in the office – which is what she encountered in a previous firm where she was the first person to secure part time working and why she left after her second child (because “it felt like too much of an uphill struggle that I couldn’t face anymore.”) Raydens’ founder, Katherine, works part time although she’s in the office pretty much every day working around the needs of her clients as well as being available to her children. The key point is that she’s constantly contactable by clients. “The clients always know there’s always someone they can contact and know which days I’m in the office. They know that if they need me on one of my days off they can call the office and be put in touch with either Katherine or my secretary and they can get in touch with me if it needs to be me they speak to. And usually it doesn’t need to be me.”
I’m interested in the occasions it has had to be Emily a client speaks to. “Very rarely does it need to be me and I’m always contactable by Blackberry and can get a letter out via my secretary the same day if needed. It’s very rare that something is such an emergency it can’t wait one day until you’re back in the office. There’s not been a day in the four years I’ve worked part time where there’s been an emergency that I haven’t been able to make time for a 20 minute phone call on my day off. And these emergencies are very rare. I’ve never had a client say there’s ever been a problem with me not being available or accessible.”
Emily concedes there are some cases she worked on at her old firm that she doesn’t think she would have been able to do part time basis as they were such big, full on cases involving a huge amount of work. Even then though it’s not really about the client, it’s the workload and that can be shared with two heads assuming the right job share can be found (which is entirely possible even at senior levels as per this post about job sharing in Whitehall demonstrates). Emily says these cases were a small minority rather the mainstay of her work and “the vast majority of my cases you could have run on a part-time basis very successfully.”
There are useful practises Emily and the team adopt to make flexible working work which includes routinely letting others know what’s happening on their cases. This informal sharing and talking to one another is surely part of the reason Rayden Solictors feels like a good place to work.
Going beyond the benefits to individual lawyers of being able to better combine work and life outside work why should law firms be keen to embrace flexible working?
Brand differentiator, good public image. “A lot of my clients are interested in and respect the fact that I work part time and lot of other people here and therefore they get a positive vibe about our firm. Yes we get the job done but we’re not there with jackets on the back of chairs for the sake of it. That’s not our culture and I think our clients think of us as a more human place and respect us for it.”
Acquiring top talent. “From a business point of view, Katherine’s approach means that the firm is able to attract a calibre of lawyer it might not otherwise do (as a relatively new regional firm) – as the London firms don’t generally offer part time working (or if they do, it’s 4 days minimum generally), then even though she can’t quite compete with the London salaries, lawyers who previously worked in London are attracted to the firm anyway and the firm’s clients therefore benefit from excellent staff.”
Savings on recruitment fees. Recruitment consultants placing lawyers often work on a percentage of first year salary fee and lawyers are often paid finder fees for any new hire they bring into the firm (around £5000 and probably more for more senior recruits).
Retaining client knowledge and ‘how things get done around here.’ It’s difficult to value this although clearly valuable especially if the person who would otherwise leave is a client magnet.
More input and output than you’re paying for. In my experience women are generally so delighted to work in a progressive organisation that doesn’t resent them not being physically present every day of the week – be they lawyers, marketers, accountants or TV producers – that by allowing them to work flexibly the employer gets back an out of proportion level of conscientiousness (checking of Blackberries, thinking about clients, planning things in their heads and so on) on days they’re not paid to be doing it.
The bigger picture. “If an employer sees flexible working as an issue it’s actually a relatively short term one in the context of their whole career as most people don’t want to stay part-time, it’s something they do whilst their children are small.”
There’s clearly a substantial amount of thinking and action for many heads of law firms to do in this space if they want to hang onto their best people and have more women at the top. As well as this we need more action and more voice from the lawyers who want flexible working arrangements be they women or men. The many female lawyers I’ve met over the years are bright, articulate and doing their very best by clients BUT they haven’t been comfortable blazing a trail to make their work environments better for the next female recruit or their daughters. To each of you I implore to keep pitching for flexible working – that focuses on the business benefits – and steadily we’ll change the culture for the better.
Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work by Jessica Chivers (Hay House, £10.99) includes a commercially grounded approach to pitching for flexible working.
[i] If women leave the profession after child bearing the talent pool shrinks and less women appear at the top of law firms. Better gender balanced boards equates to better financials. See Adler, R. (1999). Women in the executive suite correlates to high profits.