If you ask the average person on the street what it’s like to work at a law firm, talk will immediately turn to relentless pressure, crazy hours and stressed-out employees kipping under their desks. But while that might be the stuff of major London practices (or, even, the comedy lawyers who populate Suits), it’s not a world Tapestry Compliance recognises.
Agile working is part and parcel of life at this atypical firm, which is little surprise given the background of co-founder Janet Cooper. Having experienced the hectic pace of the City as a long-time employee at Linklaters, she decided it was time for something radically different – and that meant a different approach to employee relations in the sector.
She joined forces with a former colleague, Bob Grayson, and the pair set up a new kind of law firm, outside London, that handled “City-type work” but offered staff the opportunity to have their own life as well.
“We wanted to be very people-focused, and to recruit the smartest individuals we could because we were looking to work with the biggest and best companies,” says Cooper. At the heart of it was the idea that agile working would be crucial to how the firm operated.
“Flexible working can often have negative connotations – that colleagues are ‘not there’ when you need them. We are focused on the word agile, because it is all about being responsive,” she says.
“Agility for us is being client-focused, but recognising that you can deliver the service as part of a team. It’s not about doing 50-60 hours a week at your desk. We work sensible hours, we have an enjoyable time in the office and we have other things going on in our lives. But I don’t talk about work-life balance, because it assumes that work is not part of life. We spend so much time at work – we want to enjoy our time there too.”
The approach is paying off. In the six years since the firm was founded, no one has resigned. The ‘boutique’ practice, which specialises in all aspects of executive remuneration, employee share plans and incentives, as well as broader employment-related issues, has around 30 people across its locations in Sheffield and Leeds, and is in the process of securing new office space.
While the firm is by no means large, its clients include the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Rolls-Royce. It has also attracted lawyers from top firms, who have been tempted by the chance to work at a time that suits them and still have a high-profile career. It has picked up several awards, including the Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2017 and Best Specialist Law Firm 2016 at the British Legal Awards.
A major unintended benefit of creating an organisation with agility at its core was that the firm attracted a huge number of female applicants. “It wasn’t a conscious decision at all, but offering this way of working became a real competitive advantage and a magnet for the best people – and a lot of them just happened to be women,” she says.
Approximately 85 per cent of its leadership team are women. “If you looked at any other law firm, the number of female partners would be around 15-20 per cent,” says Cooper.
But, as she points out, agile working is available to all. Staff work various hours to suit their needs. It may be that they want to have breakfast with their children and do the school run, or in one case train as an elite athlete at 5pm every day.
Cooper says they don’t use the terms full or part-time work. There isn’t even an agile working policy. “For anyone who wants to work in a more flexible manner, we ask them how it is going to work, and how they are going to support their clients and the team. On the whole, we are looking to say yes – in fact, we have never said no,” she says. And if someone is good, Cooper would rather have them working fewer hours than not have them at all.
“I’m not sure who nine-to-five suits. Our clients don’t work those hours – they are in different timezones,” she says. Employees who want to start early normally work with Asian and Australian clients, while those who like a later start are given US clients.
It sounds simple. But what matters is working as a team. Cooper believes flexible or agile working isn’t successful when tasks are ‘dumped’ on others. “We talk a lot about the importance of buddying,” she says – a system whereby people work together for mutual support.
Cooper acknowledges that one of the reasons the firm’s approach is working is that it has been a mindset from the start, not a policy that is trying to fit into a hierarchical management system. But that doesn’t mean other law firms can’t adopt an agile approach. “It’s not rocket science – it’s about treating people decently and agreeing a rate of pay for the level of contribution, whatever that is,” she says. “Agile working works – it’s the smart thing to do, and it gets you loyalty.”