Playing the game.
A former Freshfields senior associate who was also the co-chair of its Women's Network has criticised the firm for its failure to retain women.
The firm, which has recently appointed a female Managing Partner in London, said it had made the creation of an inclusive environment a priority.
Megan Elizabeth Gray qualified in the US and then rose to senior associate in Freshfelds' London office over 10 years, until she quit five months ago to work in-house at Condé Nast.
Gray recalled in ABA Journal how, "For a decade, all I knew was a life in which I worked around the clock".
"It was not uncommon for me to get home from work at 9pm, only to receive another email from a client who needed something by morning. I didn’t mind; I loved what I did", Gray said.
Her perspective shifted when she returned to work after having a baby. "Rather than always being on edge and on email, without the space to be a fully present mom, my intention was instead to be a dedicated corporate lawyer during work hours and a dedicated mom during nonwork hours".
Gray proposed working fixed hours akin to a traditional 9-5 day, with a commensurate paycut, so that she could balance a career with raising a child who recognised her.
However, Gray said that Freshfields rejected her plan and told her she would have "no value" if she worked fixed hours, which were “incompatible with client-facing, transactional work”, and meant her team would be “both unable to meet client demand and unable to reorganize work".
”I was told no one had ever done it before. I was told it was impossible", she said.
Gray said she was "saddened, surprised and angry", and resigned when she was warned by women who had tried Freshfields' suggested alternatives - a four day week or a reduced overall workload - that they would fail, due to creeping demands.
While Gray's time in the Women’s Network had seen some progress, such as replacing 'Dear Sirs' in correspondence with gender neutral language, she believed the firm failed to address deeper cultural issues facing women and particularly mothers, such as a work-above-all-else mentality, and an ingrained, unconscious bias towards men.
"I knew of women, for example, who were told during their annual review that they shouldn’t be so 'obvious' about their ambition, reflecting a bias against something for which men aren’t accused or penalized", said Gray.
She cited times when Freshfields appointed all-male teams for industry conferences, "which begged the question of whether women were even considered", and said she experienced endless client relationship-building events geared towards male colleagues, which she said directly impacted which associates were later staffed on those clients’ transactions.
"I attended year after year of rugby at Twickenham", Gray told RollOnFriday, and although she soldiered on for the sake of her career - on one occasion finding herself as the only woman playing in a client football match at Craven Cottage - having a baby flipped a switch.
"After years of bearing witness as senior female colleagues left the firm — as if on cue — it took facing a block in my own career journey to truly understand what was happening", she said.
Gray said her experience demonstrated that Freshfields preferred to "keep the status quo, and the status quo was male", and to preserve its business model "at the expense of losing women, along with their talents and unique perspectives".
Freshfields told RollOnFriday, "It is clear that there is still a long way to go to remove structural barriers to women that, sadly, still exist today", but that "creating an inclusive environment where people feel they belong and can thrive is an integral part of our culture at Freshfields".
The firm described how earlier this year it launched new diversity commitments and targets "to help us accelerate our actions and hold us accountable for our progress", and said, "We continue to focus on initiatives such as our global sponsorship programme for women, and evolving our policies to support flexible and agile working. We are determined to make faster progress in this area and it remains a clear area of focus for us".