Law firm unveils plan to retain top women

Allen & Overy will allow its partners to work part-time, to encourage more women to stick around.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It’s fair to say that the round-the-clock demands of working as a partner in a top legal firm aren’t brilliantly suited to family life – which is partly why so many women decide against it. But this could be about to change, at least at Allen & Overy: the City’s fourth largest law firm is proposing to allow leading partners to work more flexibly, the idea being to stop women walking away from top jobs in the legal profession. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and it would be nice if other law firms followed suit. But will it actually work in practice? (no pun intended)

Of course, flexible working is nothing new, even in the rather old-fashioned legal world. Like most law firms, Allen & Overy already gives junior lawyers and support staff the option to work flexibly – but partners were regarded as too important not to be in the office full-time. As of May, this is all set to change: even the most senior partners will have the option to work a four-day week or take an additional 52 days leave, for a period of up to eight years.

It’s taken Allen & Overy a while (too long, perhaps) to come to this conclusion. The initiative is the result of an 18-month consultation which found that many women are leaving law firms in their early 30s on the verge of becoming partners, after deciding that being a partner and a mother don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. At the moment, 62% of its graduate hires are women, but only 15% of its partners. David Morley, Allen & Overy’s senior partner, says the reason for this is not inherent sexism; it’s because many young women find the prospect of becoming a partner unappealing (though, of course, he would say that).

This isn’t purely altruistic. Allen & Overy, along with rivals such as Clifford Chance and Linklaters, are only too aware of the advantages of retaining top female talent. As Mr Morley told The Times: ‘We believe that it’s going to be a matter of competitive advantage if you’ve been able to put in place systems and policies which encourage more women to come into the partnership.’ Though we’re not entirely clear on other details yet – for example, how opting to work part-time will affect salaries and benefits.

The sceptics among you will be quick to point out that this could be nothing more than a PR exercise. After all, it's easy to offer a scheme like this – but will partners actually feel comfortable about taking it up? We suspect its success or failure will only be clear in a few years’ time. Still, we’re a pretty optimistic bunch here at MT; every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, right?

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