In June 2014 the government extended flexible working rights to more than 20 million employees across the UK in a policy shift that recognised the traditional nine-to-five routine no longer dominates British workplaces. But if such attitudes are relatively new to much of the economy, lawyers in in-house roles – traditionally a more progressive environment than private practice – have long put a premium on agile working.
Flexible working, defined as any pattern other than going into an office for five full days a week, can encompass part-time hours, job shares, nine-day fortnights or working from home. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as of August 2015, eight million people work part-time in the UK out of just over 31 million in the UK workforce, while four million are estimated to primarily work from home. The biggest driver for flexible working requests remains parental responsibilities, but such arrangements have become more accepted for a wider range of reasons, including carer responsibilities, chronic illness, or even the desire to pursue outside interests.
For the in-house profession, its support for progressive working has long been built on self interest; flexible working is well established as one of the most effective means of attracting quality lawyers from private practice, compensating for the higher salaries at leading law firms. Despite the profession’s conservatism, increasing demand for hard-to-find specialist skillsets in commercial law means employers have been prepared to be adaptable to get the right candidate.
In-house is not the solution it used to be. I spent half my weekend working because I had to read papers for board meetings.
Monica Risam – Aviva
Laila Coffey, who co-heads Shilton Sharpe Quarry (SSQ)’s UK in-house business, believes support for flexible working has only grown over the last three-to-five years. ‘Large FTSE or equivalent clients often can’t compete with basic salaries, so they need to think of other ways to attract these individuals. People look to go in-house to gain some control over their working pattern. Work-life balance is a huge sell.’
Philip Bramwell, group general counsel at BAE Systems, has people in his team who are permanently on four days a week, as well as new fathers working four days a week for an extended period. The company also allows job-sharing, where one lawyer works two days, another works three days and together they cover a full-time role. ‘BAE invests heavily in its people. It wants to retain its people throughout their careers and maintain their valuable skills, and so it does take every advantage it can around opportunities around career breaks and flexible working. We have the ability to be more flexible than private practice, and that enables us to attract and retain outstanding talent.’
Yet despite corporates and GCs talking up the benefits of flexible working, its availability and successful implementation vary hugely in practice. ‘It will depend on what sort of business you support and often what business line you support,’ says Jane Fry, an in-house recruiter at Barclay Simpson. ‘If you are required to support Asia-Pacific, you would need to be there early in the morning.’
Add these factors to the growing remit and responsibilities of the role and the logistical difficulties of offering flexible working to everyone in an in-house role is considerable.
It is an interesting tension for the in-house profession. Rising demands and expectations for employed lawyers mean lengthening work hours in many cases, pushing against the flexibility that has been a cornerstone of the modern in-house profession.
‘In-house is not the solution it used to be for people who wanted a quieter life,’ concedes Monica Risam, the GC for Aviva Life. ‘When you are operating at a FTSE 100 level in a company like Aviva – I spent half my weekend working because I had to read papers for board meetings this week. If you are working in-house at the highest level of an organisation, in a highly regulated financial services environment, in-house is not the easy solution in terms of more workable hours.’
Flexible working is rarely advertised in initial job descriptions, and is typically offered on an individual basis for those who have been at a company for a while and have already proved themselves. ‘It is very rare that a company would offer flexible working contractually – this is more of a cultural sell rather than something they would have in writing,’ says Coffey. ‘Companies are very open to flexible working, but probably not from day one. They expect people to establish themselves in the first three-to-six months and then essentially join the company culture of allowing people to work from different locations, including from home, and then maybe leaving early or starting late.’
However, getting the right person for the role is also important and challenging for senior and specialist roles. Even at interviews, exceptions are made for key roles or for the most impressive candidates. ‘We take a very meritocratic view in that we want the best person for the role and, if there are accommodations that we have to make to enable us to get the best people, that’s exactly what we do,’ says Andrew Garard, GC and company secretary at ITV.
Garard has a number of lawyers who share childcare responsibilities in his team and work alternative hours as a result. Although the company does not generally offer job-sharing, ITV has part-time roles available. ‘If you are making a drama it’s going to take around 18 months. There are very few things that are of the moment so the industry helps us to be more flexible.’
Kirsty Cooper, group GC at Aviva, says her team has six staff currently who job share, including two at a senior divisional team head level. One works Monday to Thursday, while the other works Wednesday through to Friday, overlapping on two days of the week.
‘Normally, when we are advertising for a role, it is a permanent role,’ says Cooper. ‘If someone came to us and said, “I’d love to do it X number of days”, we would consider that if we could make it work. But then you need somebody else to fill the rest of the days and that is always the challenge. That is why, where we can get these job shares and can offer flexible working to two people, but it becomes one role – works best.’
Considering the role of industry sectors in flexible working, many assume that companies in the financial services industry would be less progressive than those in the TMT sector.
Though there is clearly some truth in that, in reality the picture is more nuanced. Often it depends as much on the culture of an individual company as the industry sector.
For example, in a 2014 survey by jobs website Glassdoor, the Bank of England, which includes up to 35 days holiday for full-time staff, came second for work-life balance, based on reviews by employees who praised the company culture as ‘really warm, relaxing, not too much stress’, while Barclay Simpson’s Fry cites the Big Four accountancy firms as being particularly forward-thinking.
James Conyers, group GC at Sky and an advocate of flexible working, strikes a similar tone, citing an event he attended in 2015, called the Power Part Time List. The annual ranking, now in its fourth year, which is produced by specialist recruitment company Timewise Recruitment, identifies 50 standout senior employees working part-time.
In-house counsel named in the 2015 list include Vodafone lawyers Amy McConnell and Katharina Grote, who job share in the role of head of enterprise legal products, each working 22.5 hours a week. The pair manage a team of seven lawyers that is responsible for checking that all Vodafone’s portfolio of products are legally compliant. Also cited is Rob Price, the head of the deposit takers division in the Bank of England’s legal team, and Virgin Management group legal director Anita Waters, who both work four days a week.
Getting agile – companies boasting part-time champions
- AT Kearney
- Addleshaw Goddard
- Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
- Bank of England
- Bates Wells & Braithwaite
- Dixons Carphone
- EPR Architects
- Goldman Sachs
- Hill+Knowlton Strategies
- HSBC Global Asset Management
- JP Morgan Asset Management
- Kleinwort Benson
- Metropolitan Police Service
- National Grid
- Nomura Holdings
- NYK Group Europe
- Osborne Clarke
- Procter & Gamble
- Save the Children International
- Schroder Investment Management
- Société Générale
- The Boston Consulting Group
- The Pool
- The Royal Bank of Scotland
- The Sunday Times
- Virgin Management
- Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co
- WS Training
‘I was very interested to see the range of sectors and different roles that attended that event,’ says Conyers. ‘There was a senior legal role at a bank – a man who had gone part-time for work-life balance reasons and it worked really well.’
Ultimately, however, in-house teams in technology and media are regarded by many as the pace-setters for flexible working, with Sky, Vodafone and BT cited as standout teams in researching this article.
ITV’s Garard comments: ‘TMT is more progressive than financial services because they are more regulated industries. By its very nature, when you work in the creative industries you look for creative solutions and that includes making a work-life balance work as well.’
Where the split is more obvious in regards to the success of flexible working is in relation to which business lines the employee supports. High-volume, predictable work usually lends itself to flexibility, whereas large and unpredictable transactional projects, particularly M&A, are understandably far less suited. ‘It is more challenging in teams like M&A, where the work is more volatile and you are expected to work longer hours at short notice or travel,’ says Cooper. ‘In London we tend to do work that is quite high profile and has an accelerated timeline – that doesn’t lend itself as well if people have childcare to arrange.’
Coffey says that US companies tend to be less flexible than their European counterparts. ‘That might be because of EU regulations on working practices, but we do find that US-headquartered companies just do not have the evolved mindset on flexible working. What we try to breed in Europe is not a live-to-work but a work-to-live environment.’
Where ground is being made is the amount of men who now request some form of flexible hours. According to data from the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), for the first time, as many UK men are working flexible hours (60%) and from home (56%) as women (61% and 56% respectively), demonstrating a cultural shift on gender roles in the workplace.
The remaining disparity in the ILM research between the sexes relates to part-time working (38% of men and 63% of women) and job-sharing (13% of men and 22% of women). However, while there are still fewer men than women working part-time and in job-share roles, ONS statistics show that the number and proportion of men working part-time has been increasing steadily for the last 20 years. In 1995, there were just over 800,000 men in the UK working part-time, a figure that doubled to 1.618 million at the end of 2015.
There are a number of contributory factors to this – many economists believe that the post-banking crisis malaise contributed to a spike in part-time employment by those unable to secure full-time work – but one notable development in recent years is the government reforms on shared parental leave that were implemented under the Children and Families Act 2014. Mothers are now able to end their maternity leave after a two-week period and working parents are then able to decide how they want to share the remaining leave.
If you are going to be inflexible, you are not going to attract or retain the best talent.
James Conyers – Sky
‘Definitely we see more women who work flexibly than men. That said, there are considerably more men that work flexibly now than there were five years ago,’ comments Fry. ‘Shared paternity leave has changed attitudes to men being more involved in childcare. Society is accepting it a bit more.’
Although most GCs interviewed for this piece agreed that there were more women than men who worked flexibly within their legal team, at Direct Line Insurance Group the split is more even. GC Humphrey Tomlinson comments: ‘We have home-working, a bit of flexibility on time – those are the key things. We have had a job share as well. It’s pretty even. The job share we had was between two women with small children. One of our male team members specifically wanted particular hours so he could drop off and collect his child from school.’
While support for flexible working is widespread, a key question for the employed profession is whether it can maintain its drawing power against private practice at a time when salaries are rising at law firms. While most law firms still lag in-house on progressive working practices, some believe that gap is narrowing.
SSQ’s Coffey adds: ‘Law firms are definitely improving. It probably happens more as someone gets more senior within the business – there is still a culture of needing to be seen when you are a junior lawyer.’
Conyers goes further, arguing that he has seen a substantial improvement in law firms’ support for agile working. ‘I certainly observe it in some of the external firms. They even do things we don’t do. Partners going on sabbaticals – we have no history of that here at Sky.’
The debate becomes a little more complex when it comes to client attitudes to flexible working at their external advisers in terms of handling their work matters. GCs have generally been less vocal on promoting flexible working in outside counsel than they have on corporate social responsibility or firms having credible ranks of women partners. More common are client concerns over their instructions being handled by burnt-out associates. Though a number of GCs profess support for flexi-working at advisers, there is considerable cynicism among law firms regarding the willingness of clients to accept their advisers being on anything other than constant call.
Flexible working – The takeaway
You have to be disciplined. I spend more time speaking to lawyers about work-life balance. I spend no time speaking to lawyers about working harder.
Philip Bramwell, BAE Systems
There are considerably more men that work flexibly now than five years ago. Shared paternity leave has changed attitudes.
Jane Fry, Barclay Simpson
Most of the time, I have no idea whether our advisers are in London, in their Leeds office or at home and it doesn’t matter.
Humphrey Tomlinson, Direct Line
In London we tend to do work that is quite high profile and has an accelerated timeline – that doesn’t lend itself as well if people have childcare to arrange.
Kirsty Cooper, Aviva
Lawyers go in-house to interact with the business. We have had candidates go for interviews in offices where it’s a ghost town. That company becomes less attractive.
Laila Coffey, Shilton Sharpe Quarry
Tomlinson says: ‘One of our external advisers works flexibly and the firm has two offices – one in the north and one in London. Most of the time, I have no idea whether they are in London, in their Leeds office or at home and it doesn’t matter. If somebody were to say, “I am only going to be in the office two days a week and you cannot contact me outside of those days,” then we would say: “Fine, but we need to know who we can talk to when you are not contactable.” That doesn’t mean to say they can’t do it, but they need to work around it.’
For those companies offering flexible working, perhaps the most difficult factor is trying to strike a balance in accommodating valuable workers without creating an absentee culture or an office with the energy and atmosphere of the Mary Celeste. Not every team gets it right. ‘A lot of lawyers want to go in-house because they want to interact with the business, but we have had instances where candidates have gone for interviews in offices where there is no one there,’ says Coffey. ‘It’s a bit of a ghost town, and then the pendulum swings the other way and that company becomes less attractive.’
By a similar token, GCs need to be realistic that flexible working places new demands on managers to avoid staff becoming under or over-worked and to ensure that the team can operate effectively. ‘You have to be disciplined about it,’ says Bramwell. ‘I spend more time speaking to lawyers about getting a better work-life balance and I spend no time speaking to lawyers about working harder.’
However, for Conyers, the biggest mistake a company can make in a competitive employment market is trying to stick exclusively to the traditional office routine. ‘On a purely moral and ethical level, it is important, but actually in pure business terms it’s really important. If you are going to be inflexible, you are not going to attract or retain the best talent. More fool someone who doesn’t understand that. It also allows you to think more broadly about how to meet the needs of the business.’