By Elizabeth Harrin (London)

Lovells was the first top ten UK law firm to vote in a female managing partner, Lesley McDonagh, in 1995. Ruth Grant has just completed a three-year term as regional managing partner for London and recently assumed the role of global people development partner. The company has a strong history of promoting women so you’d expect Lovells to be at the forefront of developing schemes to support emerging female talent – and they are. This year they have set up a mentoring programme as part of their women’s network.

“We launched the mentoring programme pilot in direct response to the requests of members of the Women’s Network,” says Katherine Mulhern, partner and co-chair of the Network. “Mentoring programmes have been identified as having particular benefit for women seeking to progress internally. The objective of our pilot mentoring programme is to stimulate and progress the professional development and personal growth of women within the firm necessary to deliver sustained business growth.”

The scheme is open to all women, in both support and legal functions, and was launched this September. The plan is to run the programme for between nine and twelve months and see how it goes. “To ensure we get the best results from this programme we have invited Mairi Eastwood and Peninah Thomson from Praesta, an executive coaching and mentoring organisation, to brief our mentors on some useful mentoring frameworks and skills for effective communication,” says Mulhern. “The exact shape and flow of each mentoring assignment will be different. We asked mentees to identify any particular objectives that they wish to achieve from the mentoring programme and have sought to match them with mentors who would be best placed to assist them.”

There are 27 mentoring pairs taking part, and while it is early, the feedback has been positive. “A number of partners, senior lawyers and senior support staff have volunteered to act as mentors and even though this is only a pilot scheme, we have been delighted that such a high number of employees have applied to be mentees,” says Marian Bloodworth, Of Counsel and the other co-chair of the Network who is herself a mentor in the scheme. The company has a high proportion of women in senior positions, with women now representing 25% of all London partners, so there is no shortage of senior role models.

Developing Mechanisms to Retain Female Talent

However, Lovells wants to ensure this continues, and launching the women’s network was part of supporting the ongoing diversity initiatives at the company. “With increasing numbers of women joining the firm, we are continuing to develop initiatives and support mechanisms that will assist us in retaining female talent,” says Bloodworth. “The women’s network is open to all employees of the firm, male and female. The energy and responsibility for keeping the network viable belongs to the employees who decide to participate.”

The network aims to identify and take actions which promote and support a culture of mutual respect and inclusion and which values all members of the firm for their contribution regardless of their background or preferences. Improving recruitment, retention, and career satisfaction are among the objectives, along with increasing the firm’s awareness and understanding of issues relating to network members.

It also provides a framework for a range of other initiatives to support women’s development and diversity at the firm.

In May 2007, the firm introduced a new merit based career model as part of an overall retention and talent management strategy. At the heart of the model was a desire to move away from length of service based progression and offer career development opportunities on the basis of merit, giving more choice and flexibility to lawyers and to ensure that the most talented progressed quickly within the firm. A key feature of the new career model was the introduction of the ‘senior associate’ and ‘of counsel’ roles and two innovative development programmes designed to support lawyers transitioning into these roles. The model is underpinned by a competency framework providing transparency and setting out the firm’s expectations of lawyers at different stages of their career.

Encouraging Work-Life Balance

The firm is also an advocate of flexible working, which is open to everyone, not just women. Where possible, a six-month trial of the flexible working arrangement is agreed by an individual’s line manager, although informal flexibility is considered normal throughout the firm, and this is agreed on an ad-hoc basis. The needs of the client have to be taken into account – and this makes flexible working in a legal environment always a challenge – but where it’s possible the firm makes every effort to support requests for flexibility.

Legal work can be difficult and challenging, and creating a work-life balance is tough. Lovells has also set up a different type of network, one focused on socialising and fun. Called Lovells Ladies, this networking group holds cocktail parties and an annual dinner – and clients of the firm are invited along too. “The reaction to the first event was overwhelmingly positive,” says Mulhern. “It succeeded on a number of levels: as a women’s networking event, an opportunity for female partners and of counsel to spend valuable ‘face-time’ with clients, and as a change of scene from the usual sporting fixtures offered as client entertainment. It plays a valuable role in encouraging female lawyers to participate directly in client networking and to build the links that will enable them to develop their client portfolio, which is an integral part of their career progression.”

Mulhern herself has benefited from building relationships with senior colleagues both at Lovells and her previous firm. “The ability to get informal feedback and advice from senior women, and men, has been invaluable help in my own career progression and management has been invaluable,” she says. “By establishing the mentoring programme, we are hoping to provide a certain structure around a very informal process.”