Why getting rid of billable hours will encourage gender diversity in law

Bird & Bird's Elizabeth Lang believes the traditional billing by hours model in the legal sector just doesn't work. Here's why creativity and flexible hours makes sense for diversity in law.

Elizabeth Lang, partner at Bird & Bird’s international employment group, has been working with the law firm for close to two decades, and has been championing the firm’s drive for diversity for the past five years.

In her time at Bird & Bird, she’s seen a lot change, but what has stayed the same is board and senior management-level buy-in on issues like social mobility and gender diversity.

“Law is a second career for me. I studied languages at university and spent six years after graduating in headhunting and recruitment. I had a long, hard look at my career and realised I didn’t want to essentially own a sales company. I did a professional year and trained at a smaller firm, and joined Bird & Bird when employment law was still fairly new,” she says.

Bird & Bird evolved from a niche UK practice to an international, full service law firm with 28 offices, and for Lang, it’s still growing and evolving. “It’d be mad to leave a place that is both challenging and rewarding, so here I am,” she adds.

Board members are keen to drive change forward. UK is quite developed in that respect. Internationally rolling it out, but different countries have different rates of change.

The work-life balance issue

For Lang, there are many barriers for women in the legal sector, but most of them are self-defeating perception that need to be addressed early on.

“I have three children, and two of them were born when I was an associated at Bird & Bird. I was supported and was able to work part time when I needed that flexibility. I could even maintain my client relationships because I had someone else working for me that could fill in when I had an afternoon off, for example. It was basically seamless for the clients, and that’s what helps make it easier to balance work and life,” she explains.

“Some types of work lend themselves more to helping men and women find that balance. I mean, our numbers are good but (women) are still a minority at partner level.”

But is it always a choice between parenthood and a career? If so, why is this only something that affects women?

“In our sector, it’s clearly a problem. 50 per cent of associates are women, but when it comes to the partner level, you see the numbers starting to drop. It’s a combination of things, she says, but she doesn’t think it’s just because women take time off to raise children.

“If anything, it’s a perception problem. Many women assume it’s impossible to combine the two roles of being a parent and being partner. It’s a matter of educating women in the early and mid-career stages that there are initiatives in place to help.”

Agile working is one key initiative she cites that Bird & Bird has rolled out internationally. It sends the message that the firm supports flexible working and helps people feel like they can have it all, says Lang.

“A lot of people here work part-time at an associate level to balance work and family, and that includes a male associate, which is great to see. But that’s not the only reason why some people may prefer flexible hours. It’s not just women, it’s the millennials. They don’t want to work nine-to-five, and many would like to do other things with their lives,” she explains.

These millennials see commitment towards diversity as essential when choosing where to work. “If we’re to recruit new talent, we need to meet their expectations of what it means to be a great place to work,” Lang adds.

Ultimately, with any discussion around diversity, it’s really important to get the men involved. The more you don’t, the more it widens the gap. It’s not a them and us issue.

Perceptions hold women back

There are a lot of assumptions about what women returning to work can do, or what they want to do, according to Lang. She believes the onus is on firms to address these perceptions and make it easier for women who want a career push to be able to get it.

“Our women leadership programme, for example, focuses on skills training to help women push themselves. It’s based on internal research into gender specific challenges facing our employees, and it basically helps to better support women who want to grow. What’s important is that we have the buy-in of the board and of senior management. They get that this is a business decision that makes sense. We’ve always had that support from the top, but it’s in the last three to four years that it’s become a priority for us,” says Lang.

Additionally, clients tend to prefer firms that are diverse, and they want to see themselves mirrored in their lawyers, according to Lang.

Another perception holding women back is that getting a promotion within a law firm, or being partner will only add to their workload and keep them from finding a better balance. “We’ve seen a disproportionate number of women working in-house. That’s where (talented lawyers in the mid-career stage) are going. Again, it’s probably because of the perception that working in-house offers a slower pace and makes it easier to manage work and life,” Lang explains. “But what these talented women don’t realise is that they’re still accountable to someone higher up, and will probably not have the flexibility they could have as a partner in a firm. Partners by definition have a more flexibility. They also have people working under them they can delegate work to.”

Finding new models that work

The traditional legal model of billing clients by hours places a lot of emphasis on long work days and might even encourage presenteeism and inefficiency. Lang believes the old model just doesn’t work.

“As lawyers, we need to offer more flexible and creative pricing structure to clients. That’s what clients want! Clients are under a lot of pressure today, and they work with strict legal budgets. Fixed fees are increasingly preferred, and it makes sense because then it forces teams to work faster and more efficiently,” she says.

“With the hourly rate, clients feel like they don’t have control. So the first step is to establish the right price for the work you have to do, and the second step is make sure it’s done quickly and well. This makes it easier to see who the high performers are, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them are women who don’t want to waste time.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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