A few years back, Washington-based lawyer Maria Simon was watching hew two-year old son at a play date. “Jack was in the corner just fooling around by himself. I asked him why he wasn’t playing with his friends and he said: ‘Mom, I have to finish these emails’. I realised he was mimicking my behaviour – which just wasn’t what I wanted.”
Maria Simon is a partner at the six woman strong Geller Law Group which is built upon “a near-evangelical determination”, as Simon puts it, to show that parents can “nurture their professional ambitions while being fully present in their children’s lives”.
Flexibility is key to the approach of a legal practice that was set up by co-partner Rebecca Geller. The firm does not have a physical office and so, if their lawyers need space, then a room is hired by the hour. “We want to be able to do interesting legal work but we want to do that on our own terms,” says Simon.
Simon and Geller describe themselves as “militantly against” the traditional law firm model where, as Simon puts it, “you must be in the office and there must be ‘face time’ with senior partners”.
“People are tethered to their iPhones and BlackBerries these days,” she continues.” But that same technology has also allowed us to expand and have a really flexible working environment. You don’t necessarily need to be in the office every day.”
Despite the liberating potential of technological innovation, a stubborn culture of “presenteeism” is one of the main factors contributing to the dearth of women in senior management positions in law firms. More women than men are entering the legal profession but less than one-in-five of partners in the top 20 firms are women (19%, according to The Lawyer’s Top 200). It is the same story both sides of the Atlantic. In 2013 women accounted for 16.5% of law partners in US firms (the National Association for Law Placement).
When Halebury launched in the UK in 2007 it was instantly labelled an “alternative” law firm. Founding partner Janvi Patel and business partner Denise Nurse, who both started their legal careers at City firm Charles Russell, drew on their experience as in-house counsel, to focus on what clients’ valued.