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Janice Wall – head of the Corporate Team at Wedlake Bell – on striking the work life balance & women in corporate law…

I have been a corporate transactional lawyer since qualification in 1987, a partner since 1997 and I am now head of the corporate practice group and a board member at Wedlake Bell LLP.

The life of a corporate transactional lawyer, whether male or female, has remained in essence the same throughout my 25 year career (to date); it’s highly time intensive, hands on and pressurised – especially when a major transaction is about to close.

The question I am asked regularly is ‘has there started to be a better work life balance in recent years?’ Certainly up until 2008 I would have said ‘no’, 2005-2007 (and actually more recently) have been some of my more intensive and constant years of transactional work, whilst from 2008 to 2010 – during the recession – we did see part time working become more acceptable in corporate departments. However, this was probably a reaction to a lack of work and trying to retain talented staff. By contrast, in the recession of the early 1990s staff numbers were slashed without thought for a future recovery. In that sense, I do think law firm management has learnt some lessons about staff retention and that flexible working can happen even in corporate departments. Until I joined Pitmans as head of its London office in 2004/5, I had not seen any part time corporate partners and associates in practice.

Innovations in technology – such as email, blackberry and laptops – do make flexible, part time and home working possible (in theory) as you can still provide the same service to clients on a fast moving transaction in contrast to yester year. However, if you are the lead partner or associate on a transaction, it is virtually impossible to down tools and sever all contact from the office – especially when a deal is about to close. In my view, lawyers at this level who want TO work flexibly can never really work less than four days a week and in reality they work much longer hours than that if they want to meet client expectations.

We must make technology our servant rather than our master as it can allow transactional lawyers in particular to have some kind of work life balance without sacrificing the service to clients. If we don’t provide that service we won’t have a business, but if we don’t have a reasonable quality of life then we won’t have the staff or the partners to do the work in the first place.

Personally, I think it is a question of striking a balance in the amount of transactional work you constantly expect staff to run with and at the same time giving people both the responsibility and ability to develop their own business. If the balance is correct then staff are prepared to work the hours needed to do a large deal but they can also see there will be some relative down time before the next transaction. On the same note, if they are getting more and more responsibility on the transactions, are taking ownership and pride in the closure of a deal, along with opportunities to business develop for themselves, then they will be more motivated and prepared to go the extra mile for the client and the firm.

Another question often put to me is ‘has the attitude to female corporate lawyers changed over this time and is it easier to succeed?’ Well, in the early 1990s it was a definite ‘no-no’ for female lawyers to wear trousers at work and we at Titmuss Sainer & Webb had pre-printed memo pads for attendance notes beginning “Mr…. spoke to X and got instructions on ….”.

I also remember when I announced that I was pregnant in 1991 that my head of department succeeded in getting me more than the statutory maternity pay. He reported that it had been a battle at the partners meeting with one apparently saying “we don’t want to make it too good and encourage this kind of thing”. I am pleased to say that things have definitely moved on since then!

At Wedlake Bell LLP, which is a top 100 UK law firm, three out of the four major practice groups are headed by female partners who also sit on the operational board – which is progress indeed. However, there should not be complacency.

www.wedlakebell.com

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