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Case study: preventing young women from ‘checking out’ at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills

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The global law firm's Careers Directions coaching and panel event programme is designed to make women more ambitious

Location: 24 offices spanning Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the US

Number of employees: 4,700

Number in HR team: 81

Case study focus: The firm’s Career Directions programme, designed to inspire women, and now men, to aspire to senior positions

The organisation

Herbert Smith Freehills is an international law firm co-headquartered in London and Sydney. It specialises in litigation and corporate and financial law. In the 2013 Global Elite Brand Index Herbert Smith Freehills was named one of the top 10 global elite law firms.

The challenge

Despite the success of Lord Davies’ women on boards target there is still – as reflected by his new target of 33% – much work to be done.

Law firm Herbert Smith Freehills is certainly keen to be part of the change by boosting female representation at partnership level – currently 20%. Many might be tempted to turn their attention straight to matters of maternity leave and childcare. But the firm became aware a couple of years ago that the problem of less women than men progressing to senior positions starts much earlier, with a noticeable exodus of female talent around the three-year post-qualification mark.

“We didn’t see a huge haemorrhaging of women leaving the firm, but there were some examples of really regretted losses where people would say: ‘she was an absolute star, what did we need to do to stop her leaving?’” reports head of diversity and inclusion David Shields. “Or maybe people don’t leave but they’re not aspirational.”

He adds: “By three years in we’d often already have lost them. Out of a group of five women we might find two had already left, and three had made up their mind they were going to leave the firm and do something else.

“A lot of lawyers go in-house because the perception is it’s better for work/life balance,” he adds.

The method

To uncover what was going on here Herbert Smith Freehills enlisted the help of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, who recently published research on the phenomenon of young women ‘checking out’ early on, often leading them to leave a company.

Herbert Smith Freehills worked with the consultancy – whose research found 49% of those 21- to 35-year-old females surveyed cited work/life balance one of the top three characteristics in female senior role models – to realise that assumptions about how manageable a high-level position at the firm would be were putting women off.

What was needed, then, was greater visibility of female role models with a good work/life balance, and of men taking on their share of parental responsibility through paternity leave and flexible working. One example the firm has been conscious to highlight is global head of employment, pensions and incentives Alison Brown, who is high level but also works a four-day week.

“Sometimes things are happening but it’s the visibility and people getting that insight,” says Shields, adding: “One of the biggest questions we get is ‘what is it actually like to be a partner?’ So we are really turning up the volume on role models.”

One key way of doing this is through Career Insight panels where people can put such questions directly to senior figures in the firm. The organisation has also started entering employees into the Part Time Power List, sending a strong signal about the viability of part-time working at a senior level.

Also part of this Career Directions programme is a series of careers coaching workshops, which Herbert Smith Freehills has now extended to men. “That’s about facilitating career choices and planning at critical stages, and making sure people have the information to make informed choices,” says Shields. “The hope is that we provide enough information that more people a. stay but b. become more aspirational too.

“We do a lot around ‘what’s your brand, what’s your strength, how do you play to those strengths?’”

This activity is all supported by what employees are actually practically enabled to do in terms of flexible working for example, reports Shields, with this first rolled out last February. And it must all be underpinned by providing strong male role models too.

“If we just look at women to be role models we are putting additional burden on our women,” says Shields. “Having men also as role models is very important – it’s having men talk about work/life balance.”

The result

Colleagues have responded positively to the initiative, says Shields, with the firm confident that this early-on intervention will hopefully go a long way to achieving its target of 25% female representation at partnership level by 2017.

Take up of flexible working has been strong, he reports, with 89% saying they value this, 75% saying they are more productive, and as many men as women taking up the opportunity.

Next steps have included partnering with other law firms in the city to hold joint panel events for example, and connecting female employees with mentors and counterparts at other firms and within customer companies. This often has advantages beyond encouraging women to be more ambitious.

“We have a very active women lawyers network. Building networks is increasingly powerful, we’ll get work referred from other partners,” reports Shields. “And we connect women with female clients – the clients really enjoy it and it creates business development opportunities for our female lawyers.

“There’s real advantage there of thinking differently about things.”