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CLOs, you need to become progressive people managers

Practising In-house
|Written By Cheryl Foy
CLOs, you need to become progressive people managers

After years of trying to manage the multiple responsibilities of a full-time and demanding senior in-house role, with those of mother and spouse, a friend of mine recently decided to resign from her job. She tried to make it work, including negotiating with her employer to reduce her hours. Her efforts were to no avail. That decision took courage and is to be congratulated as my friend, when forced, chose a path in keeping with her priorities of family first. What irritates me is that she had to make the choice in the first place. It is a significant loss to her employer, and a loss to the in-house community.

Another friend is in-house counsel in a workplace in which having children is openly frowned upon and no time is given to accommodate family responsibilities. At the same time, she works day and night when necessary.

While grateful for everything we have, my female in-house colleagues and I have had many conversations over the years bemoaning our busy lives, our sense of exhaustion, and the challenges of our multiple roles. Most of us live the reality of being the primary income earner and/or the one with primary domestic responsibilities. One of our consolations was that our children would know that “it” could be done. Women could have it all — a challenging career and a successful family life.

Forcing my friend to choose between career and family severs one more thread in the rope for those of us dangling over the precipice shouldering our multiple responsibilities and holding on to the hope that we can do it all. Expecting lawyers to work until the job is done, but giving no flexibility to accommodate family responsibilities, is another way to ensure that my second friend will be joining my first as soon as she is able to. What a loss!

More than 20 years ago, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on women in the workplace. I looked at initiatives to advance pay, employment equity, and alternate work arrangements. My views then were the same as they are now: if we want to ensure our workplaces and our country enjoy the benefits of having as many of its productive and capable citizens contributing, we will figure out creative ways to accommodate their participation in the workforce. Forgive me if I’m being a simpleton, but as I reread that assertion, I can’t see how any rational business person could disagree with it.

And I probably won’t get disagreement — instead, I’ll be told that it’s a nice idea in principle but that in practice it doesn’t work. It might work for less senior or less-demanding roles. It might work in government. It might work in Sweden. It might work in the rest of the company . . . but it doesn’t work for lawyers.

I’ll agree that we don’t generally seem to be able to make it work but not that it cannot work. We’re focused on the wrong things. I’ve had experience with offering alternative work arrangements and I know it can be challenging. It’s harder to manage because it’s outside of what we’re used to doing. The systems aren’t necessarily set up for it.

Managing two people sitting in one job is difficult and hiring two people who have the same skill level (so resentment doesn’t arise) and can effectively communicate with each other is also difficult. Communication challenges with the two employees are doubled. It may be a little more expensive to hire more part-time people. Other employees who aren’t in a position to go part-time may be resentful.

The part-time employee experiences these same issues from the employee perspective. Part-time employees are seen as less committed, are overlooked at promotion time, and may be paid for part-time hours but actually work a 40-hour week. After all, if a full-time lawyer works 50 to 60 or more hours, what is part time?

Furthermore, offering flexibility to employees demands trust that the flexibility won’t be abused. If you are a lawyer who is a manager of people and a key reason for not extending flexibility to your employees is a fear that the privilege will be abused — get over it. Extend the flexibility and deal with those people who are abusing it. Chances are those people are taking liberties whether they are given flexibility or not.

These are all issues that need to be recognized and managed — they are all issues, however, that are capable of being managed. Any additional costs of offering flexibility in work arrangements are more than offset by the avoidance of all of the costs and disruption of turnover.

As a single mother, the only way I can be in the workforce is if I am given the flexibility to work in a way that makes sense for my employer, me, and my family. The solution for most mothers is to try to be with their kids at important times during the day when they are awake, and work after the kids go to bed. The same may be said of people with other family obligations, such as those who have an ill spouse or aging parents.

Our work as lawyers can absolutely accommodate flexible work arrangements. Reading, writing, research, and responding to non-urgent e-mails can all be done anywhere and at any time. As employees, we have to recognize the additional challenges of flexible work arrangements and work to ensure that the impact on our internal clients is minimized and we are available when we need to be.

So here is my call to chief legal officers out there, and particularly those of you who are supporters of the Legal Leaders for Diversity initiative. One way to encourage diversity is to meet the diverse needs of employees who, while willing to work hard, also require flexibility. Take a long, hard look at your management style and your assumptions. Are you walking the walk as well as talking the talk?

My evidence is that most of you are not.


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