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A few years back, Washington-based lawyer Maria Simon was watching her two-year old son playing. “Jack was in the corner just fooling around by himself. I asked him why he wasn’t playing with his friends and he said: ‘Mom, I have to finish these emails’. I realised he was mimicking my behaviour – which just wasn’t what I wanted.”
Simon is a partner at the six woman strong Geller Law Group which is built upon “a near-evangelical determination”, as she puts it, to show that parents can “nurture their professional ambitions while being fully present in their children’s lives”.
Flexibility is key to the approach of a legal practice that was set up by co-partner Rebecca Geller. The firm does not have a physical office and so, if their lawyers need space, then a room is hired by the hour. “We want to be able to do interesting legal work but we want to do that on our own terms,” says Simon.
Simon and Geller describe themselves as “militantly against” the traditional law firm model where, as Simon puts it, “you must be in the office and there must be ‘face time’ with senior partners”.
“People are tethered to their iPhones and BlackBerries these days,” she continues. “But that same technology has also allowed us to expand and have a really flexible working environment. You don’t necessarily need to be in the office every day.”
Despite the liberating potential of technological innovation, a stubborn culture of “presenteeism” is one of the main factors contributing to the dearth of women in senior management positions in law firms. More women than men are entering the legal profession but fewer than one in five of partners in the top 20 firms are women (19%, according to The Lawyer’s Top 200). It is the same story both sides of the Atlantic. In 2013 women accounted for 16.5% of law partners in US firms (the National Association for Law Placement).
When Halebury launched in the UK in 2007 it was instantly labelled an “alternative” law firm. Founding partner Janvi Patel and business partner Denise Nurse, who both started their legal careers at City firm Charles Russell, drew on their experience as in-house counsel, to focus on what clients’ valued.
Halebury do not have a physical office – instead the firm’s lawyers, who tend to be very experienced (on average 15 years post-qualification), are often based at the offices of their corporate clients, enabling them to build highly effective relationships.
“I don’t want our team to sit with me,” says Patel. “I want them to sit with the client, because that is where they will add the most value and collect information most effectively.” She also points out that the flexible approach is also a much more cost-effective way to work – another factor guaranteed to please clients.
And at Halebury, this client-centric focus has a further impact: it enables lawyers to design ways of working – and living – that suit them, as Patel herself demonstrates. While the firm’s business is largely in the UK, Patel – the firm’s chairwoman – lives in Los Angeles. “I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning to try and hit London hours and fly back every four or five weeks and do a week in London,” she says.
However, flexibility – by definition – can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Alison Dennis leads Fieldfisher’s life sciences practice and is on the firm’s executive committee. She argues that there are limits as to how much you can change the practices of City lawyers. “As soon as you start doing deals and handling litigation – in other words, primarily what commercial law firms do, as distinct from the advisory work – then there are transactions that [need to be completed] and deadlines that have to be hit. However, the combination of connectivity and technology offers opportunities for firms to think creatively about how people can be brought together to meet those deadlines.”
It is a point echoed by Simon. “The demands of a litigation-based practice are much more stringent and rigid. There are always court deadlines. It’s the nature of the beast,” she says. She joined Geller Law from such a firm. “I really did love my last job – but it was an entirely federal court practice. So I had a lot of West Coast cases, with a time difference and a small baby. I remember having a hearing starting at 4pm in Los Angeles – that is 7pm on the East Coast, and if you have a small child you’re missing bedtime.” But she adds: “That is the beauty of technology – you can be on the phone in Washington and in court in LA.”
Apart from the increasing demand to clock up billable hours, one of the big barriers for lawyers with family commitments to making significant progress in City firms is the need to network and bring in new clients. Can flexible firms be as effective? Patel, who has a six year-old and four year-old twins, concedes that networking and client acquisition is traditionally about face-to-face networking.
“There is something of a traditional approach to networking: drinks, events in the evenings etc,” she says. “I just do not have the bandwidth for that.
“For a start I live in LA, but also childcare finishes at 6 or 7pm,” continues Patel. “So we try and be as effective as possible with the tools we have, and social media is a large part of our marketing and business development work.”
The firm has a strong and lively presence on social networking sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn. “I have probably attended two events in the year, other than the ones I am speaking at. The bulk of our business has been created and marketed via technology,” she adds.
The challenges for working families are evident. “If you look at what most fee earners have to do in private practice to reach partner level – six or seven billable hours a day, plus all the business development, marketing, training and administration – you quickly run out of time before you have to go home and pick up the kids,” says Patel. “Women in the industry need to think of different, more efficient ways of operating, and social media is great.”
Sometimes flexibility means setting limits. Simon recalls a defining moment at her old firm when the other side’s counsel pointed out she was emailing while in labour. “It is so easy to be constantly on your phone,” she says. “If we do not set those limits for ourselves in the technological environment that we’re raising our children in, it is very easy to let them think that being in front of the screen all the time is completely normal.”
Dennis agrees. “Every Apple device that comes out is expected to be smaller, smarter and faster. People expect that from their lawyers as well. Law firms can try and rethink the way that they provide advice, but there are situations in which firms’ options for providing flexible working solutions are limited by client needs.”
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