Is lack of flexible working a barrier for women in the legal industry?


When it comes to flexible working, some industries have moved quicker than others. Whilst the legal industry is making strides in the right direction, it has been a relatively late adopter. With that in mind, we’re going to explore the current state of flexible working in the legal industry, discuss why it’s important, and shine a light on any barriers.

The current state of flexible working in the legal industry

Since 2014, all employees in the UK (not just parents and carers), with at least 26 weeks continual service, have the legal right to request flexible working. This change in law, brought flexible working into the forefront both for employers and employees. With it, more industries have begun to accept flexible working, and many professional services industries are getting onboard. 

Admittedly, the legal industry has been slow to catch on. In an industry where long-office hours are the norm and presenteeism is pretty much expected, breaking tradition will be more of a challenge. What we’re seeing at the coalface, is that many firm’s approaches to flexible working are restrictive. Many cap their flexible working policies to working from home 1 or 2 days a week. Rather than allowing employees the freedom to choose how, when, and where they work, the majority are being granted a piecemeal offering. For flexible working to really take off, we need a change in culture that has to come from the top. Only then will the industry be able to reap the benefits that flexible working has to offer.

Is the lack of flexible working a barrier for women in the legal industry?

As with the majority of industries, diversity is a key concern in the legal industry, especially when it comes to more senior positions. According to BPP University Law School’s recent report, women will not achieve parity with men at a senior partnership level in law firms until 2037. Another diversity report by Chambers Student’s Law firm found that amongst city law firms, few can boast female partnership figures above 25%, with less than five of them above 30%, demonstrating that the industry has a long way to go.

The lack of flexibility offered by law firms is a major barrier for women and is perpetuating the gender disparity in senior roles. As women progress in their career, they are forced to make decisions on how to combine working life with parental responsibilities; often women leave because they can’t achieve a reasonable work-life balance. Inevitably this limits the talent pool for employers, both for internal promotions and external hires.

If we are to truly tackle the gender disparity within the legal professions, we need to challenge the current culture and break down these barriers. We often hear that client demands and business needs prevent many from being able to work flexibly, particularly in practice, but where there’s a will there's a way. The demand for flexible working is clear, and advances in technologies and ways of working are making flexible working a more achievable option.

How can law firms overcome these barriers to flexible working?

Use new technologies for remote working

Where in the past there has been concerns over the practicalities of flexible working, using new technology such as cloud computing and video conferencing, businesses and employees can remotely in a seamless manner. This means employees can work effectively without the need to be office based. Technology and flexibility are also helping to meet the needs of clients who want a more on-demand service, where the need to visit a brick and mortar establishment are eliminated or at least reduced.

Embrace job sharing

Job sharing can be extremely effective within law firms where client demands and pressures mean that a lawyer is needed to be on hand full-time. By operating job share arrangements law firms may find they can attract and retain many more talented women employees.

What are the benefits to offering flexible working?

Understanding the benefits of flexible working can help to change the hearts and minds of employers. 

As a starting point, when it comes to diversity, flexibility in the workplace should be seen as the number one driver in bridging the gender gap in the legal industry. The fact is, flexible working allows women to remain in practice, and by retaining female staff, employers will have more opportunities to promote women into more senior roles. Not only that, flexibility can be a key differentiator in attracting female talent, and by offering flexible working at the point of hire, employers can show their commitment to supporting women to progress throughout their career.

Secondly, flexibility is increasingly what employees across the board want. A timewise study found that amongst younger workers, 92% either work flexibly or say they want to, and 87% of full-time employees work flexibly or want to. With levels of demand at an all-time high, to remain competitive as an employer, flexibility has to be a major concern for law firms going forward.

The next key benefit for employers is the potential boost to productivity. Research from HSBC found that nine out of ten employees (89%) surveyed claimed that flexible working is their number one motivator to boost their productivity at work, compared with 77% of respondents who said financial incentives would motivate them. In the battle to improve productivity, offering flexible working is an extremely cost-effective tactic.

Finally, (though this list is by no means exhaustive), adopting flexible working can help law firms to reduce expensive overheads such as office space. By using innovative business practices such as co-working spaces and cloud technology, law firms can reduce costs and in turn deliver better value to clients, making their offering more competitive. In our view, flexibility is the future of the legal industry. To truly reap its rewards, employers will need to take an iterative approach, and establish a flexible working strategy that works for all parties.


Karen Bailey, Marketing Manager at Capability Jane

Capability Jane Recruitment specialise in sourcing flexible and part-time professionals for SMEs across a range of industries, including Law. We’re proud to be supporting the ground-breaking new conference, the Women in Law Summit, which aims to overcome career barriers and drive progress for women in the Legal sector. 

Currently the legal positions only make up 10% of our roles something we would like to improve.  If you’re looking to expand your Legal team, or a candidate looking for a flexible role in Law, call us on 0845 604 1916, email us at or visit our contact page to find out how we could support you.