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After a quick flick through the recruitment pages at the back of the legal press, you might come away with the impression that the law – a profession best known for its punishing hours and devotion to clients – has gone soft.‘We do not expect you to burn the midnight oil,’ exhorts a prospective City employer. ‘We are keen that our lawyers find a healthy balance between work and their lives outside the office,’ claims another. Meanwhile, one firm styles itself as ‘a firm that cares about its people as much as it cares about its business’. ‘Quality-of-life’ issues are increasingly being talked about in the legal world. But it is less clear whether firms are paying lip service to the issue or whether they are really embracing flexible working practices to allow their fee earners a life outside the law.Is it possible to work 60% of the week and still be thought of by your peers as 100% committed to the team? The question is posed by Tony Sacker, chair of the City of London Law Society and a partner at Kingsley Napley. He believes the answer should be a resounding ‘Yes’.That is the theory, but the practice is different. Since Linklaters launched its flexitime scheme for partners more than three years ago, a few firms have followed suit – such as Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Herbert Smith – but apart from select star players, few partners are actually working part time.Everybody in the City is sympathetic in theory, says Sacker, but he adds they are also concerned about loss of competitive advantage and clients’ attitudes. He says: “There is so much City culture that says you show your commitment by the number of hours you are working and your willingness to drop everything for the firm.” At Kingsley Napley there is no formal flexitime policy, but Sacker points out that there have always been part-time partners in the firm.People think it is a lot more difficult than it need be, says Diana Good, a litigation partner who was responsible for the Linklaters scheme. She believes that ad hoc arrangements miss the point. “The problem is that you have to wait until the individual says ‘I am leaving’ and then devise a policy.”Freshfields has also introduced a part-time partners scheme. According to managing partner Ian Terry, the main motivation was “to try to stem the tide of talented female lawyers” fleeing City firms for a more family-friendly life. “Everyone, in principle, agrees we must try and do something to stop people leaving the City because of the brutality of the hours,” he says. He concedes that the take up has “not been great” but he still sees it is a “significant step”.Linklaters also introduced its scheme specifically to remove the perception of a glass ceiling for women. For the last 12 years half of the intake of trainees into firms have been women, but only 10% of partners were women, Good explains. “It does not take long to work out that something has gone awry,” she says.She believes it is “absolutely fundamental” to start at the top with partners working flexitime because it sends out the right message to everyone else. The Linklaters part-time scheme is not just available to women nor is it limited to partners. At any point in time there are about four part-time partners and 35 assistants.Joy Kingsley, managing partner of Manchester-based Pannone & Partners, believes that a change in culture is needed. “The vast majority of managing partners are male and I suspect that a large number have not brought up children with wives who are working,” she says. “The ethos in law firms tends to be that the husband goes to work for as long as necessary and the woman does the childcare.”Kingsley herself is a flexible worker who works late on Thursday nights and takes Friday afternoons off to collect her children from school. “When my eldest son went to school I realised that I was going to be the only mother not standing at the school gate,” she says. However, she is less keen on arrangements such as home working for staff, arguing that “the team works better when they are together”.While the bosses readily admit to the problems of introducing flexibility, younger lawyers – both men and women – are becoming increasingly despondent with their lifestyles. The Young Solicitors Group (YSG) is surveying law firms, looking at how employers are addressing lifestyle issues.Hannah Wiskin, a solicitor at Yorkshire firm Hempsons and a member of the YSG’s management committee, says: “A lot of young solicitors have worked very hard to get where they are, but they are thinking ‘there must be more to life than this’.” Not because they are dissatisfied with being solicitors, she quickly adds, but because they recognise the importance of being a rounded individual.While there is much talk of flexible working policies from firms, Wiskin remains unconvinced of their commitment. She says having such a scheme looks good “in the same way that it looks good to have a pro bono officer”. Nor is the real issue part-time work for the partners. She says: “Assistants are seen as cannon fodder in some of these big firms, which they are not. They bring in huge amounts of money for these partners.” For Wiskin, the test of the progressive firm is whether it allows assistants to work part time, not just to have children but to become a councillor or do an MBA.The more compassionate arguments for introducing flexible and family-friendly working arrangements might fall on the deaf ears of managing partners, but Miranda Smyth, a director at recruitment consultant ZMB, believes they should find the bottom line implications more persuasive. According to her calculations, the cost of replacing a three-year-qualified commercial solicitor in a medium-sized law firm could be as much as £300,000. “If a few law firms sit down and do their maths in terms of what they were losing they might spend a bit of money on their retention policies,” she says.However, Janet Gaymer, an employment partner at Simmons & Simmons, believes that the message is getting through. The market is becoming “so much more competitive and vicious” that firms are reluctant to waste time and money on recruiting, she says.But she also argues that a “subtle change” is taking place. Instead of the employer dictating to the employee what hours they work, the employee is “becoming the seller of chargeable time”. Any employer that does not wake up to that reality will have problems, she predicts. Earlier in the year Simmons struck a deal with star banking partner Helen Hancock, who was due to leave the firm for Bevan Ashford, allowing her to work full time from home.But such measures are still unusual. While many firms readily provide lawyers with laptops and ISDN lines, they are far from happy with more permanent home-working arrangements. Christopher Davis, who set up the virtual law firm Davis & Co seven years ago, is amused at the notion that remote working dilutes the team spirit. “My experience of law firms is that lawyers are cats and you cannot herd cats,” he says. “They pretty much tend to hunt alone, bringing in the pack when they need it to bring down a big beast.” Davis & Co is a network of 40 solicitors who all work from home or their own offices and who only formally meet once a month.Davis prefers the description of ‘free-worker’ to tags such as ‘tele-worker’. According to the solicitor a ‘free-worker’ is someone who is “free to work when they like”. He says the concept is ideally suited to knowledge workers and, he adds, lawyers are the “ultimate knowledge workers”. Davis runs a paperless office; and with a mobile and a laptop he can work “on an aeroplane or in the back of a Jeep”.But Gaymer, a working mother with two daughters, says new technology is a double-edged sword because it can make it even more difficult for people to escape the demands of the office. It requires a new skill, she says, which is learning to take the phone of the hook, unplug the PC and turn off the mobile and pager.Elaine Aarons, who heads Eversheds’ City employment practice, has worked a four-day week for 11 years and in that time she has built up the employment practice from one to 21 lawyers. She is piloting flexible working for the firm. “Now I basically work where I want and when I want provided I keep my clients happy and I am at certain key internal meetings,” she says. Aarons says she has been liberated by technology. She has four phone lines at home that allow her to access everything she needs from the office and to work in real time from home.Aaron reports that the change in her working life has brought about a refreshing change of pace. She often works a 14-hour day, but now she misses the rush hour traffic, has supper with her children and then can go back to the files. It has given her “a new sense of empowerment” and allows her to control what she calls her “quiet periods”. But she insists: “It is not about working less.”Before Davis set up Davis & Co, he was an assistant solicitor at McKenna & Co, where he worked 100-hour weeks. Clearly, he has no regrets about leaving the City behind. “If the demand is there it will keep on consuming and consuming,” he says. “I remember one stage where my wife had to come into the office at the weekend just to spend some time with me.” And that, as he points out, is not quite right.

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