Championing the Law as a Flexible Employer

Spencer West construction lawyer Emma Claremont is also the owner of a recruitment business that champions flexible working.
Emma, how, and why, did you decide to act so decisively to promote a culture of flexible working in the legal profession?

I have seen many people, myself included, leave a profession they love simply due to a lack of flexibility. Lawyers tend to be inherently conservative – in the sense of cautious, risk-averse and therefore wary of change – and so changing established practices doesn’t come naturally to many of us. Lawyers and law firms, as professional service providers, are also very often seen as followers, people and institutions who don’t move until their clients have moved, or the majority of the industry has moved. For the past six years, I’ve been trying in a small but determined way to change that culture. My recruitment company has helped many lawyers to find permanent roles with a flexible working arrangement, about two-thirds of them women. But, even more importantly, my ownership of the recruitment business has given me an opportunity to have conversations with leaders and opinion formers across the industry.

How did disadvantage play out for lawyers whose circumstances made it harder for them to fit into “traditional” working arrangements?

It was complicated. Often lawyers who sought more flexible working were encouraged in the direction of Professional Support Lawyer roles. While these roles can be very rewarding, they take lawyers further away from the client-facing aspects of their job and off the natural pathway to partnership. I’ve always felt that a move to a PSL role should be a positive choice, not presented as the only option if you want to work flexibly. There has also been the growth of the “Lawyers on Demand” business model. This also very much has its place. However, it again takes lawyers away from private practice career progression and from the sense of belonging at one firm with that associated brand.

Many lawyers I speak with feel they need to make a significant change to their role in order to achieve flexibility. I have always wanted every lawyer, regardless of their circumstances and working arrangements, to have the opportunity to access a permanent fee-earning role within an established law firm.

What kinds of flexibility are people seeking?

It is often to do with location, in other words being able to work from home; but it can also be about hours as well. There are all sorts of reasons for seeking flexibility, varying from the more obvious ones, such as childcare, to caring responsibilities, to having something else you want to do with your life in addition to your legal profession, such as wanting to train as a psychotherapist, or a yoga teacher, or just to have a day to re-charge and go for a walk, while continuing to work as a lawyer.

I truly believe that if law firms are prepared to have open, honest and respectful conversations with their lawyers about establishing bespoke working arrangements then everybody who is involved in that, both directly and indirectly, will see a huge benefit.

Does the need for flexibility apply more to certain groups in society?

In practice, it often applies hugely to women, because we still have a society where most childcare responsibilities fall to women, and that is a continuing expectation. The legal profession is still fighting to have anything like equal representation of women and men at partnership level and the numbers of partners who work flexibly is disappointingly tiny. This does not inspire confidence in women who (1) want partnership and (2) want to work flexibly. But it’s not just women. Men are also hugely impacted by this situation. There is often, within the legal profession, an old-fashioned assumption that in the case of a man, having a child will not impact their working practices at all. Many of the men I’ve placed successfully have made the positive choice that they wanted to be more around for their families and have found their previous law firm unsupportive of that choice. I am seeing more and more men who feel this way.

Flexibility is by no means only applicable to parents though. Many lawyers are finding themselves in the position of being a carer, which can come with significant demands on your time. And there are also many people who, for a wide variety of reasons, find it difficult to, for example, work full-time, or to commute at rush-hour or to be regularly in an office environment. None of these should be a barrier to being a lawyer.

Are you surprised that the legal profession is still so resistant to change?

Absolutely. You see clients and client organisations who themselves have embraced progressive working practices, and the lawyers who support them are still chained to a desk! Also, some of the firms that are resisting flexible working practices are the most international, and have had video conferencing going on for decades.

That said, there are some firms out there who are making real changes – some who have been championing flexibility for years and others who are learning from and responding to the lessons of Covid.

Why do you think there isn’t more progression?

It’s two things. Firstly, the ownership model means that equity partners often promote people who share their world view, so more cautious and conservative equity partners tend to self-reproduce. And secondly, progressive thinking is sometimes seen as the preserve of the business support teams, such as HR and marketing, and is motivated by the firm wanting to look good, rather than the approach really being owned by the people who make the decisions. This results sometimes in the promotion of an image of the firm that is inconsistent with the lived experience of the people who work for it. And this really damages lawyers’ views about the reality of flexible working and undermines the work of those of us fighting for change.

It is hard to underestimate the impact of seeing people like you in the roles you want to be in. This applies to all underrepresented groups in society. One element of that is to ensure that flexibility is championed and practiced by lawyers at all levels within a law firm. The more partners and senior lawyers who start working flexibly, the more the legal profession is opened up to a wider and more diverse pool of people who can see the law as a long-term career.

What made you want to be such an agent for change?

When I was a child, my mum was the main breadwinner, and my dad picked me up from school, and so it just feels normal for me always to ask, “What’s the best arrangement for all involved?” and to keep all options on the table. For that reason, I’m always astonished when people’s minds run along completely stereotypical lines, with assumptions about the reasons for the status quo.

I truly love being a lawyer, and I’ve wanted to do it since I was ten years old. The moment I decided I was going to be a lawyer was when I worked out that you could be paid to argue – it seemed too good to be true! But then I had a child of my own, and found I couldn’t make that career work while being the parent I wanted to be, and I saw so many of my peers leaving the law for the same reason. So, I took a short career break from the law and I decided to try to make a difference (and it also allowed me to keep arguing!).

How successful do you feel you’ve been?

It’s my influencing that may turn out to be the most important factor in terms of achieving change. I’ve had many conversations at senior levels within law firms, and to do that as a lawyer, and not just as a recruiter, and so from inside the system, means you can make the case that much more powerfully. I have also worked flexibly myself, so when I speak about these things, I’m talking about something I and my clients have trialled. I first worked from home back in 2011 when I was working as a senior associate for a major international law firm and had relocated to Derbyshire. I came into the office in London roughly once a fortnight and it worked brilliantly. At that time, the arrangement was made possible because one of the firm’s major clients suggested it. I didn’t even know that kind of arrangement could exist. I was delighted that my move, which had been made for personal reasons, hadn’t forced me to leave a job I loved. It makes me sad that some people still don’t know that such arrangements exist and I see that same delight in candidates when I successfully place them in roles that meet both their professional and personal aspirations.

Many recruiters will tell lawyers that flexible working isn’t possible without a significant change of role. That just isn’t true. More and more lawyers are looking for flexibility and there is, thankfully, more and more available. What this means is that, as employers, relatively conservative firms are increasingly losing employees and candidates to more progressive ones, especially in the wake of Covid.

It is interesting to watch who does what, and what that reveals about the firms in question. I think it’s starting to create a clear split in the market, and we will end up in a position where anybody who is interested in flexibility won’t even look at certain firms, and, as time goes on, that will start to be a structural problem for those firms.

I will know my job is done when having a recruitment business that specialises in placing lawyers in flexible roles is no longer a USP. In the meantime, I am delighted to work as a lawyer and as a partner, at a firm that supports me to work flexibly in terms of both hours and location, and also to continue to support other lawyers looking to do the same.

Emma, well done for what you’ve achieved, and thank you so much for speaking with me.
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.
Emma Claremont
Partner – Construction, Engineering and Projects, Dispute Resolution
Emma Claremont is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in dispute avoidance advice, litigation, international arbitration, adjudication and mediation