Law firms accused of discriminating against women

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The Independent Online

Senior women lawyers who work part-time in the City could be victims of sex discrimination because their firms have unfair pay policies, a report will say today. Research shows that two of the City's largest law firms require partners who work part-time to take a 25 per cent pay cut in addition to any proportional reduction in their annual drawings from the firms' profits.

Senior women lawyers who work part-time in the City could be victims of sex discrimination because their firms have unfair pay policies, a report will say today. Research shows that two of the City's largest law firms require partners who work part-time to take a 25 per cent pay cut in addition to any proportional reduction in their annual drawings from the firms' profits.

Legal Business magazine claims this may penalise part-time women partners, many of whom are working mothers.

The findings will add to growing concerns expressed by senior women executives that it is difficult to balance a family life with a successful career.

The report says that at one of the firms, Lovells, all six of its part-time partners are women and all are subject to the same 25 per cent discount. The magazine also claims that their annual advancement up the firm's pay ladder is not as rapid as their full-time colleagues.

The other firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer hasa discount pay policy for its three part-time partners, one of whom is a man.

Tom Freeman, Legal Business editor, says: "This so-called 'discount' is used both as a means of discouraging partners from going part-time and because full-timers feel that they must cover for part-timers when they are out of the office."

Other findings show that City law firms employ few part-time partners, suggesting the long hours culture is suited to men.

The survey reveals that there are just 68 part-time partners at the top 10 UK law firms out of a total of 3,620 partners. Eversheds tops the table with 19 part-time partners. The world's largest law firm, Clifford Chance, has nine out of 636 partners. Slaughter and May was the only one not to have a part-time partner.

Legal Business deputy editor, Claire Smith, added: "Most of the major UK law firms make a lot of noise about the fact that they are now letting partners work part-time - but until now none has mentioned the fact that these partners have to make some pretty big sacrifices if they are going to take them up on it."

In one case a woman lawyer was told by the partners, who knew she wanted to start a family, that she should apply to become a partner and could opt for a part-time post later.She was made a partner but was told that the part-time position was only available to partners of a number of years. She left after receiving compensation.

Recent Law Society research shows that while the number of men and women solicitors entering the profession is about the same, by the time they reach partnership men outnumber womenfive to one.

Ronnie Fox, an expert in partnership law, says part-time women partners who are paid less than the pro rata rate may be able to claim sex discrimination. "If someone is doing a pro rata share of the work and billing a pro rata share of the targets, it's very hard to justify them not getting a pro rata share of the profit. A discount is very hard to justify," he said.

A spokeswoman for Lovell's said: "Lovell's introduced a part-time partnership scheme in 2001. A working party is currently reviewing the operation of the scheme and is due to report later this year."

At one firm, a female partner who was about to join the equity said that, when she asked to do part-time work, she was told that such positions were not available, and if she wanted to work part-time she would have to accept a lower salary. She later found out that that a senior male partner was working part-time.

Shelagh McKibbin is a partner in the real estate department at Herbert Smith, and the only full equity partner at the firm who works part time.

"If I do four days a week, I am always working at home on the fifth day. Most employers get much better value out of the arrangement because you do the work you have to do, but you squash it into the time available," she said.

Ms McKibbin's clients include BAA, House of Fraser and Standard Life. Herbert Smith pays Ms McKibbin on a pro rata basis and has not been accused of discrimination.

Caroline Miller Smith is a part-time projects partner at Linklaters, which has also not been accused of discrimination. "In intense periods, I will work five days a week, and in less intense periods, clients don't actually expect a partner at Linklaters to be available 100 per cent of the time," she says.