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Are the Brits Ahead on the Women Front?

Vivia Chen

August 25, 2010


Eisenbahner from Flickr

It's arguably patronizing. And certainly presumptuous. But, ah, so nice. I'm talking about Allen & Overy's policy of allowing--even encouraging--equity partners to go part-time. The aim, of course, is to help the Magic Circle firm retain women lawyers.

Overall, the Magic Circle--Britain's most elite firms--boasts a poor 14.5 percent women equity partnership rate. A&O's rate of 15 percent women equity partners is not much better (nor is the American rate, which hovers around 15-16 percent).

In recent years, though, A&O found that women make up a majority of its new hires out of law school--62 percent, to be exact, says the firm's media manager, Campbell McIroy: "The girls at school have been performing better than boys." It's a trend the firm has noticed for a number of years, says McIroy: "And we want to hire the best."

Fearing a talent shortfall, the firm implemented a part-time partner policy (the firm already had part-time policies for associates and staff) earlier this year to encourage women to stay on. The policy allows partners to work a four-day week, "or work full-time but get an extra 52 days' holiday every year on top of their normal 30 days," reports The Mail. (Remember, "holiday" in Britspeak means vacation time.) The firm's Web site also says that the policy is "open to all partners globally," and that part-time partners can continue "to progress as an equity partner, for a maximum period of eight years."

Not at all shabby. But what really impresses me is that you can chalk up 82 vacation days a year--albeit with a pro rata reduction in pay. And that's not counting the "real" holidays like Christmas, New Year's, bank days, and the Queen's whatever. So, that's almost 100 days off a year! Just thinking about it makes me grin.

Frankly, I'm surprised that more partners haven't busted down the doors of H.R. to sign up. So far, says McIroy, 12 partners--"the vast majority are women"--have enlisted, though "more are looking at it."

Though it's open to both men and women, the firm is up-front that it's aimed primarily at women. A&O's senior lawyer (the equivalent of a managing partner), David Morley, says on the firm's Web site: "The introduction of part-time equity partnership provides greater career flexibility and removes some of the existing obstacles to promotion faced in particular by women."

I have to admit that I feel a bit uncomfortable with a policy that suggests women need extra help to make it as a partner. Isn't it a bit chauvinistic to assume that a woman will place her family duties ahead of her career and that she'll require extra personal time to get it together?

Chauvinistic, maybe.  It's also probably more true than not. I just don't like admitting it. In any case, why not play up the hardship of balancing the demands of law practice and family if it will net you that 100 days of vacation time? Think exotic vacations at least twice a year!

But Morley says he's not pushing these family-friendly measures for social policy reasons. He says it's all about business: "For me, this is not about political correctness. It's about competitive advantage. We have to choose our partners from the widest possible talent pool of associates. And in common with most large firms, we lose more top-rated female associates than men."

What's more, he adds, it's key that equity partners take the lead on the part-time front: "We also wanted to send a strong signal by starting at the top. Everyone knows that unless the partners have bought in, then nothing really happens."

American law firms, are you listening? Will you let those fuddy-duddy Brits beat us on the work/balance front?

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

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One more way guys are stuck subsidizing women, just to fend off lawsuits by "feminists" who claim they only want equality but actually are insatiable in their pursuit of empowerment and total domination.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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