Lessons from a law firm: building an inclusive culture

By Claire Clarke, Managing Partner, Mills & Reeve

Work life balanceA recent survey by the Law Society found that nearly half of legal sector workers believe that reaching senior levels demands an unacceptable work-life balance.

This is leading to talent shortages and a lack of diversity at the top: while women make up more than half of solicitors at UK law firms, only 28 percent of partners are female.

At Mills & Reeve, we recognise the benefits of doing things differently. I became the firm’s first female managing partner in 2015, and I’m also a mother of four and therefore understand the challenges of juggling a career with the demands of a young family. I am very aware of the challenges facing women in the legal industry, and I believe that it’s critical for law firms to get better at recruiting and retaining talented women.

To do this, firms need to build genuinely inclusive and collaborative cultures. Our determination to do this at Mills & Reeve is paying off: 97% of our staff say that they’d recommend the firm as a good place to work, and we’ve been named in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list 16 years running.

This focus on workplace culture doesn’t run counter to our commercial objectives. In fact, it helps us to provide the best possible service for our clients. We believe it’s one of our key differentiators, and it drives our success.

These are my top tips on building an inclusive culture and a look at some of the ways that we do things differently.

1. Value staff at career crossroads

Whether it’s a new parent returning from parental leave, or an employee who’s taken a career break and then rejoined the company, we recognise the value that people can add at different points in their career. Recently, an employee returning to the firm after maternity leave was given the space to create a new product. And we’ve frequently welcomed back “boomerang” employees who leave for a new adventure and then return to the firm.

We understand, however, that employees may need extra support during these transition periods. We’ve carefully designed “keep in touch” programmes for women to stay in contact with the business while on maternity leave, and our maternity and paternity mentor initiatives provide support to mothers and fathers returning to work.

2. Embrace flexible working

According to the Law Society survey, 91% of legal professionals believe that flexible working could help women overcome barriers to career progression.

At Mills & Reeve, we encourage agile working practices and use technology to enable flexible working. An increasing number of our people now work from home on a regular basis, and we often approve flexible working requests so that employees can manage their work alongside caring responsibilities and other commitments.

3. Promote and reward people fairly 

We place great emphasis on commercial skills, ambition and innovation. Part of our 2020 strategy is to help our people develop. This year we have boosted our number of partners to 132, with seven principal associates promoted in June 2019. The majority of those promoted this year were women.

And because we believe that everyone should share in the success of our firm, almost all employees receive a bonus. For every non-partner, regardless of position, seniority or salary, the same bonus is rewarded. The scheme is fully transparent and operates on a shared enterprise basis.  

4. Create a collegiate culture 

We’re keen to have as little hierarchy as possible at work, and our business strategy is co-created by people across the firm. We’ve set up working groups that involve a wide cross-section of employees, so that people at all levels help to shape the strategy.

I meet all of the new joiners to Mills & Reeve across the business at every level. I believe that it’s important that I’m visible and accessible, and it’s also useful for me to know why people are joining the firm and how they are finding working for us.

5. Support employees’ wellbeing

We can’t expect our people to perform at their best if they’re stressed, and we understand that the legal sector can be a demanding place to be. The nature of the work can lead to an assumption that lawyers have to be available around the clock.

We have a wellbeing strategy in place at Mills & Reeve, ensuring that all team members know how to have helpful and productive conversations, create a safe environment, and spot signs of stress in colleagues. Wellbeing supporters are on hand in each office, and we have recently appointed our first Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing Manager.

6. Build strong client relationships

Wellbeing at work also depends on successful teamwork and a good relationship with clients. Rather than one key person shouldering all the responsibility, we make sure that all client-facing matters have a strong team, made up of people who are trusted by the client. This means that delivering an outstanding service doesn’t depend wholly on one person but rather there are a number of people up to speed on the client and their matters whom the client is comfortable dealing with.

7. Make connections across offices

We have six offices across the country, and many of our teams are spread across several locations. It’s important to get the balance right, implementing a firm-wide strategy and ensuring open communication between offices, while also making the most of local culture and knowledge.

We deliver regular firm updates, talking to as many people as possible about the business and taking views on board from all the offices. This helps to ensure that colleagues are engaged across the whole business.

A culture that gives us the edge 

At Mills & Reeve, we’re creating a culture where all team members feel valued and respected. We want to build a workplace that welcomes working parents, enables talented women to reach senior positions, and supports all staff to enjoy a healthy work-life balance but still first and foremost delivering outstanding client service to our clients.

This isn’t done just to keep employees happy; we know it’s important to our clients too. If our employees want to stay and develop with us, our clients benefit from consistent, stable teams and staff who are engaged and willing to go the extra mile for their clients.

Along with the rest of the leadership team, I believe that our collaborative, inclusive culture is crucial to our ongoing success. We achieve more when we all work together.

About the author

Claire Clarke has been a partner at Mills & Reeve since 1999 and since becoming the firm’s first female managing partner in June 2015 has played a key role in driving the firm’s ambitious strategy, which has seen turnover increase to £111 million.

During her time in charge, Mills & Reeve has been named in The Sunday Times’ Best 100 Companies to Work For list for a record 16th year running and has been named Law Firm of the Year at the British Legal Awards 2018/19.

Claire’s legal experience spans the full spectrum of corporate work, from acquisitions and disposals, to joint ventures and restructuring. She has particular expertise in funds creation work and also specialises in work in the education sector.

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