Thursday June 24 2021, 12.01am BST, The Times
Before the pandemic struck, high workloads and demands of hourly billing kept City lawyers in the office from dawn to dusk and meant that many faced stress or burnout. Six-figure salaries and eyewatering bonuses were the main compensation for a loss of social and family life, but if they were not enough, firms offered plenty of perks, including private healthcare and tickets to glamorous events.
In the battle to attract top recruits, some firms are now offering new perks. London law firms cannot top the starting salaries offered by US rivals — the highest a cool £140,000 paid by the Wall Street outfit Milbank. Yet City firms have introduced measures to encourage shared parental leave and help with childcare — and some have even moved into fertility benefits.
Last week the City outpost of Cooley, a Californian law firm, announced that it was offering all partners and staff £45,000 for fertility treatment as part of a new “family-forming” perk. And Clifford Chance revealed that it had extended its health insurance to cover fertility investigations and treatment up to a cost of £15,000.
This week Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner announced a £15,000 “assisted fertility” allowance, in addition to wellbeing support for those trying to conceive. Allen & Overy, which already offers enhanced paternity leave and extra maternity leave for mothers of premature babies, is to provide support and advice on fertility and early parenthood. Both firms are also offering menopause treatment.
Some lawyers welcomed the efforts being made to address wellbeing and recognise the different support needed by lawyers at various stages of their careers but others suggested that the measures ignored and covered up more fundamental problems.
Tony Williams, director of the law firm consultancy Jomati, says that firms are trying to present attractive benefits be noticed in a competitive market. “The reality is that the range of benefits is designed to reinforce and enable the current working model or to make it more tolerable,” he says.
Williams accepts that the fertility services could help single or gay lawyers and some people with health conditions but suggests that a better solution for women might be to work them less hard so that they are less likely to have fertility problems.
Dana Denis-Smith, founder of the legal services business Obelisk Support and the First 100 Years project, which charts the history of women in law, warned junior lawyers that they should not be lured by fancy perks.
From the swimming pool at Clifford Chance to the gyms, dry-cleaning, hairdressers and concierge services at other City practices, it is common for firms to give the not-so subtle message that you are not expected to leave the office — not even to eat or sleep. Clifford Chance offers hot dinners delivered to lawyers’ desks after 7.30pm and those slaving over transatlantic deals at Shearman & Sterling get a £30 Deliveroo allowance, while Hogan Lovells and Linklaters provide sleeping pods.
“Firms try to lock people in and make them feel that they are at the best place, but it’s like making a Faustian pact with the devil that you can’t escape from,” Denis-Smith says.
While helpful to a minority of employees, she suggested that headline-grabbing measures such as IVF and gender-reassignment perks would be taken up by few people and cost firms relatively little. As well as helping with fertility issues, she said that firms need to do more to support parents by providing meaningful childcare support and enabling parental leave.
Pavita Cooper, the deputy chairwoman at the 30% Club, which campaigns for greater diversity on boards and senior management teams, agrees that most of the perks “do little to progress women”. A better way to retain women, she says, would be to have a supportive culture and a trusted line manager, which would enable women to mix work with other commitments.
The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, says that firms “need to ensure that they are considering wider systemic issues such as excessive workloads and billable hours expectations”.
A spokeswoman for the society’s junior lawyers division says that “a well-considered and inclusive benefits package can help demonstrate the culture of a firm”, encouraging recruitment and retention from a diverse pool.
The pandemic has increased the focus on wellbeing and led some firms to consider ways to continue the greater flexibility necessitated by lockdowns. Slaughter and May recently announced that from September most of its London and Brussels staff will work remotely for up to 40 per cent of their time. It will also be piloting other flexible working models.
Some law firms have sought to deliver their perks at home, such as Allen & Overy, which has arranged virtual gym classes and telephone GP appointments.
Elizabeth Rimmer, chief executive of LawCare, a charity, tells firms that they need to “look at ways to create working practices that mean people can genuinely combine work with having a life”. Otherwise, she warns, “people will be put off working in the law”.