An exemplary employer

Workingmums.co.uk speaks to its Overall Top Employer for 2014, law firm McMillan Williams Solicitors to find out more about its award-winning policies.

Flexible working is part of the DNA of McMillan Williams Solicitors and its culture has not only seen it being recognised nationally as one of the most progressive companies in the UK, but brought it many business advantages in a sector renowned for long hours and family unfriendly working which has lost much good female talent through its lack of adaptability.

McMillan Williams has just become the first SME to scoop the Workingmums.co.uk’s Overall Top Employer Award. It also won the larger SME category. The judges praised “the comprehensive range of support it offered, the breadth of the case studies it submitted and for the inspiration it offered others in the legal sector and beyond”.

Its flexible work culture developed early. Denise McKeown, one of the first solicitors in the law firm’s injury department, was a new mum in the 1990s. Flexible working was very rare in law firms at the time, but Denise’s boss Colum Smith  – now the company’s managing partner – realised the business advantages of offering flexible working as a way of retaining her skills. “Rather than abandon her career she has stayed here through three maternity leaves and today is a partner, making a significant contribution, training others and being a role model for junior lawyers,” says fellow partner Nicola Manning, herself a mum of five. “There was an awareness at that early stage around 20 years ago that all the time and energy invested in women could potentially go to waste if there was no flexible working. They have reaped the rewards of that decision. They understand and appreciate that if they can accommodate people’s different responsibilities and needs and how these change they can retain the best talent. That ethos of adaptability has permeated the company.”

Manning added that that ethos came from the top and continues today in the face of ambitious expansion. Smith became managing partner in 2012 just as the company was pushing to expand following the deregulation of the legal services market which will see the introduction of non-lawyer investors. The company is keen to grasp new opportunities and branch out in new directions such as consumer awareness and brand building. “It is part of our ability to look beyond what a traditional law firm does,” says Manning. “A lot of firms are sadly stuck in a rut as they are never able to look beyond the old school way of dealing with challenges in the legal marketplace.”

It is that entrepreneurial spirit which is in part behind its adaptability to colleagues’ circumstances. It all makes good business sense. Staff expertise is retained and company loyalty increases. Moreover, if people are trusted to work flexibly they are flexible back, making the company seem much more agile. Some staff, for instance, break off at school run time and work later in the evening. “Clients see that we are not an organisation that clocks off at 5.30pm,” says Manning. “It’s nice for them to know we are always at the end of the phone or on email.” The success of this policy has prompted thinking about the firm offering late night sessions and Saturday morning openings. “We recognise that people are not always able to see a lawyer in the daytime,” says Manning.

Growth

This strategy of being open to new opportunities seems to work business wise. The company now has 18 branches but plans to grow that number to 50 in the next couple of years. “That requires funding and a commitment to recruit top quality staff and invest in IT such as cloud computing for remote working and branding. We are a high street consumer law firm, but we don’t just sit there and wait for clients. We go out and advertise on buses and trams. A flexible work culture and the feeling that this is a company which is going somewhere makes it a doubly attractive place to work. Many other firms are standing still or worse,” states Manning.

Growing a business at such a pace has its challenges, though. The firm, which currently employs 240 staff,  has managed to retain its flexibility by having no formal flexible working policy. However, it is now having to write one up due to external pressure. “We have to ensure that a written policy still allows us to adapt to individual needs. The demands, for instance, of a six month old baby are different from those of a 16 year old. Many of our staff have different childcare arrangements. There is no one size fits all,” says Manning.

The firm is also looking to restructure its HR department, but as it does so it is looking at how this can work for both the company and its workers. It is looking, for instance, to increase staff benefits, such as leadership training, in order to attract the top talent.

Manning adds that training of new managers in the company ethos is vital too to ensure flexible working permeates the firm as it grows.

Part of the firm’s success is due to its diversity which is in turn partially attributable to its flexible culture. Manning recalls being told by someone about the 30% Club. The person was talking about how firms were aiming to have 30% women on boards within five to 10 years. “I remember thinking we have 50% already,” she says. This is no accident, but part of its commitment to adaptability. “Where women would have abandoned their legal careers at other firms, we have seen them progression to senior roles and training others,” she says.

It was the realisation of their relative diversity compared to other firms  – and not just for women – that led to the firm entering awards and league tables. It has been named the top law firm for its percentage of female partners by the Black Solicitors Network diversity league table, second for its percentage of ethnic minority partners and first for its percentage of ethnic minority junior staff such as paralegals. Manning says having a diverse staff means it attracts a broader client base, for instance, a Nigerian head of crime has brought in a lot of business from African communities, and other staff have been specially trained to get specialist cultural knowledge in areas such as sharia finance. “There are huge opportunities and social impact in tapping into different communities,” says Manning, “and having staff who understand different cultures and languages gives us a business advantage.”

The awards are part of an attempt to brand the company as progressive and going places. The promotion is not just external either. The company holds an internal awards scheme to recognise and reward excellence, whether in legal or administrative functions. “It’s an inclusive thing,” says Manning, “and provides us with an opportunity to celebrate success and work beyond the norm.” Beyond the norm is something that McMillan Williams definitely embraces and its inclusive model has reaped it many business benefits.

For full details of the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award winners, click here.



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