Working differently to attract the best talent

Working Mums - Top Employer Awards 2016 at the Soho Hotel

International law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) says its success rests on the quality of the people it employs. That means attracting – and keeping – the best is vital.

In a profession known for its long hours culture, but where many employees have stated that they don’t want to work in traditional ways, BLP has grasped how important offering flexible working is as a recruitment and retention tool.

Not only can it offer flexible hours, but two years ago it launched a series of homeworking pilots for lawyers in London and Manchester, taking flexibility one step further. The initiative, and its wider implementation of flexible working, won it this year’s Top Employer Award for Talent Attraction.

“The homeworking initiative is very much to try out a new way of working and to attract and retain the best talent,” says Inclusivity Manager Claire England. “All of our thinking about flexible working comes from looking at ways we can attract the best talent to our firm. We recognise there is a huge untapped pool of working mums who need to work in a different way.”

She adds that there was no need to convince senior managers. “They get the business case and had already started adopting different ways of working within their own groups,” she says.
Manchester represents a firm-wide commitment to different ways of working. “We want to be consistent across the business,” says Claire.

Homeworking pilot

The Manchester office was set up with a view to attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. “The sector is not very diverse and Manchester offered a chance to do things differently, running a business as effectively as possible and recognising that the world has changed,” says Claire.

The office opened in July 2014 with 21 staff. It now has 70 members of staff, including 10 fee-earning real estate lawyers who are home-based. A number of other employees are able to take advantage of some form of flexible working. Some 21.4% per cent work part time.

At its London office, the firm has also been encouraging flexible working. This has had clear leadership and support from the top. Sessions on flexible working have been held in different departments. One department had a session on dynamic working and consulted about what that might mean in order to confront and address any concerns. Some departments were a little more apprehensive about the changes and the firm had trials to address this. It also offered training for line managers of remote teams.

“It’s often small things that people are worried about, for instance, how will they know if someone is working from home. Addressing these things helps people feel more comfortable about it,” says Claire.

Currently, 15% of BLP’s London-based fee-earners and 35% of Business Services have a formal flexible working agreement. That includes 19% of all lawyers in the real estate team, and, of those 19%, 76% are female. Many employees work flexibly on an informal basis. To date, all business services departments and 14 of 16 practice groups positively encourage this.

Working differently

In a further bid to normalise flexible working, BLP has, since January 2016, included a “Diversity, Inclusion and Working Differently” section in every job advert. “We state that it is about working differently rather than flexibly,” says Claire, “because that opens up conversations. What we are seeing from day one is that more people are having those conversations.”

BLP have also redesigned interview questions to include asking whether candidates are interested in flexible working.

Proof of its open-minded approach to recruitment includes the fact that the firm has recently hired two female candidates into partner position who were pregnant at the time they were offered the job. Both were able to work flexibly prior to maternity leave and went on maternity leave with enhanced maternity pay and rights within three and five months in the role respectively. They have also been able to bring their children to meetings on rare occasions when they have been unable to get childcare cover.

Anecdotally, Claire has heard from several lawyers who say the firm’s work culture is one of the main reasons that they have not left because other firms do not offer the same degree of flexibility. The firm’s clients are also interested in BLP’s work culture and Claire says she is asked to speak about it with clients regularly.

Also since January, the firm has told its partnering recruitment agents that all its vacancies are flexible unless specified otherwise. Claire is currently getting sign-off on this from the executive committee in order to fully embed it. “It is working incredibly well across fee-earning positions. Once we have the formal sign-off it gives us greater opportunities to go out to market and shout about our smart working policies,” she says.

The firm is also considering a returners initiative in recognition of the pool of experienced, mainly female, lawyers who have left the legal profession and may be struggling to get back in.

Already BLP has a higher percentage of women partners than most of its competitors at 25.8%. It hopes its recruitment policies and the Manchester initiative will increase that percentage.

Claire adds that the firm was very excited to win the award. “It is a great recruitment tool,” she says. “It shows we are serious about recruiting working mums.”

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