In July, Julia Hemmings and Helen Brown were promoted to partner at leading law firm Baker McKenzie in London, where they lead the retail and consumer practice. They are also in a job share. The duo talk about making it work for themselves and the firm.
How did you approach setting up this job-share at Baker McKenzie?
Julia Hemmings: The job-share started in 2013. I came back from maternity leave for the second time, working three days a week. I was finding it increasingly difficult to fit the work I had into three days without it spilling into my non-working days. Partners in the team had to think about the types of projects they could allocate to me that would fit with my working pattern. Our now head of department came up with the idea of a job-share.
Helen Brown: After six years’ career break to look after my young children, I returned to Baker McKenzie in 2011 to work as a professional support lawyer two days a week, but what I missed most in that role was direct, client-facing work. The idea was that neither of us had anything to lose from trying a job-share. We organised our week to have an overlap day, Thursday. Julia was working Monday, Thursday and Friday, so I slotted into that. I work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
JH: We are 1.2 of a full-time employee.
HB: That has been really important to how it has succeeded. We each do a block but a job-share can work in many different ways as long as you have effective handovers.
JH: We were both outsourcing lawyers, and when we started the job-share we took on a slightly different area. Having the mutual support to do that and get up to speed was really valuable. Our practice inherently has lots of medium-sized matters rather than one major matter to work on. We are so similar in the way we work anyway, it makes the job-share quite seamless.
What qualities do you think are important to share? In what ways is it important to be different?
JH: You have to have a good, open and honest relationship with each other because you are going to be copied in on every email the other person sends. Whether you receive praise or criticism, you have to take that together.
HB: One of the definite benefits is having someone who is as invested in your practice as you are, someone who is willing to chew over stuff, whether it is a chat with a client or a legal issue.
JH: While we have the same approach to working, we have different personalities. Clients might gravitate towards one or the other, and that is helpful too. Between the two of us, one of us is going to find a way to make those client relationships work.
How do you stay on the same page with each other?
HB: Colleagues and clients both need to know they have to copy you in so you have visibility on everything that is going on. Our updated task list is sent in the evening or first thing in the morning with an explanation of where we got to. Sometimes we have a call and chat — there has to be willingness to give up some time on the days off to transition everything smoothly.
JH: You have to make a judgment call as to how much you are going to hand over and how much is fair to leave for the next day. When we started job-sharing, my children were very little — I had to be very disciplined about having three long days working so I could have two very clear days.
How do you communicate with clients and colleagues about your availability?
HB: Partners work long hours — it is just the nature of the job. We also agreed to not use an out-of-office reply on days off because clients would get an out-of-office every day except Thursday. We use that only when we are on holiday. You have to make sure within the firm and with clients that people know we work in a job-share and this is how it works: if you email on a Monday you get Julia and a Tuesday you get me. At first we were not sure what clients were going to think, but we have found clients like to see that lawyers they work with are progressive in this way.
JH: The good thing is while one of us is on holiday there is usually someone in the office. We have a strong team back in the office, so if we know we are both going to be on holiday we do a dedicated handover to one of our senior associates, as any partner would do if they are going to be out of the office. We will juggle our schedules around to make it work.
HB: We both have school-aged children. It was important to us that we could manage our lives to work for us. We take holiday when it suits us and work around it.
What is important for people to understand about being partners in a firm who are in a job-share?
JH: One of the key questions we had going through the partnership process was whether we were going to be judged separately or together. It was very important to us that it be together. Our practice is a team effort. We were very clear that we would both be promoted to partner or neither of us, since we were being assessed on our practice.
What surprised you most about the working arrangement?
HB: Having a horizontal team where two people are invested in the same clients and the same projects has been really helpful. And there is something very motivating about having a joint to-do list with someone who will have to pick up the work if you don’t.
JH: I was surprised by how the agile work model has really helped the firm in terms of retention and recruitment.
What has been the greatest challenge?
JH: Initially there was a real question over whether we could take holiday at the same time. And some partners wanted us to be less open about the job-share and keep our working arrangement from being visible to clients. Everyone wanted it to work and be a success, and there were differing views about how that would come about. But once we were left to get on with it, really, then we were up and running and never looked back.
HB: It was in our interest to make it work. With arrangements like this you have got to let the individuals manage the job-share. As long as the clients are happy and the work is done, actually how it is done — the nitty gritty — is down to the individuals.
What advice would you give others who might want to set up this type of arrangement at their organisation?
JH: The number one task is to find the right person to job-share with. It has to be someone at your level who shares your values and working pattern, someone who you are happy to be open and honest with.
HB: Go for it. Don’t be too worried — there is no way of knowing if it is going to work until you have worked together. If it works, it is a great way of staying in a job that you like.
Are there considerations that are specific to legal industry job-shares?
HB: One question we have had is what happens if one of you leaves. But if they leave, you have lost only one half of a role. You haven’t lost the whole client relationship. It is not like if you lose a partner and they take a whole practice area, expertise or client relationships with them. The main challenge in the legal industry is the inherent reluctance to embrace change and the new. Agile working arrangements do take a leap of faith for both the firm and the individuals involved.
JH: I hope we are one of the first of many future job-share partners.
Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published