In December Magali Maillot represented Allen & Overy as a laureate of the 8th edition of the ministry of equality’s Actions positives initiative. In an interview conducted a few days before the ceremony, she explained how her company has been putting people at the heart of the business.
Allen & Overy has introduced what you have called a “one-of-a-kind parental leave” that is supposed to change mentalities around the distribution of roles in the couple. In 2021 why is this still deemed necessary, and how does it work in practical terms?
If you look at the figures for Luxembourg, not specifically our industry or our law firm, there was a trend that for a long time, until they renewed the law a couple of years ago, that 80% of parental leave was taken by women. And despite the change of law, we haven’t seen the same movement in terms of who was taking the parental leave within our field. The idea for our new parental leave came from a young female lawyer during a discussion with our global senior partner at the time, Wim Dejonghe. She challenged him and said in order to move in terms of diversity targets, we have to be more ambitious, we have to understand why fathers are not taking parental leave.
We identified many reasons why new fathers were not taking parental leave. Firstly they were the main breadwinner at home. So, even though the revenue proposed by the government is very generous compared to other schemes within Europe, you know, lawyers are very well paid so they would have a very strong reduction of their wage. But we also recognised that they [male lawyers] were afraid that it could have an impact on their career. I won’t say that women were not afraid, but it was more natural for them, I think. And women have not stopped growing in their role after coming back from parental leave.
Women have not stopped growing in their role after coming back from parental leave.
So we not only changed the scheme to offer better compensation, but if the management and the partner say “we encourage you to take parental leave, that’s something we really want, for you to take care of your family”, then that will change the way fathers see it. It will also encourage mothers because it creates a level playing field.
The scheme had to be very significant and generous. So we will compensate up to 85% of the remuneration for a salary up to €6,000. Above €6,000 we will offer 75%. And we’ve put a minimum threshold of €5,100 and a maximum compensation from Allen & Overy of €7,500. We decided that with €7,500 from A&O, plus the revenue of the state, you will have a [monthly] income above €11,000. And we believe with €11,000, you may have a very decent life.
We compensate four months of absence for each child, because that was the scheme that was most taken in our company.
Sticking with the gender balance theme, you were a founding member of the Ladies in Law Luxembourg Association. Are there some specific challenges females working in the legal sector face?
Yes, there were four women who founded LILLA. I mean, law is a very traditional culture--male, white, you know, founded 200 years ago. And at the time we realised that some of the promotion, career improvement or networking events, training… only men were coming to these events.
We decided that we had to create an environment which was safe for women to develop that type of networking, because at the time, we realised women were very bad at building networking. And we also wanted to offer some training seminars, aspirational seminars, to allow women to develop their career and their leadership. I think the glass ceiling exists in every industry. But it’s even more visible in a law firm, because you have partners. But we are working very hard to change that definitively in the very near future.
But ten years ago women did not want to be part of an initiative exclusively for women. That was very funny… they thought it would stigmatise us… Finally, we put on some initiatives and trainings, such as unconscious bias, psychological safety workshop, or owning your career as a woman. But it took time, three to four years, to be accepted as being normal.
But we understand very quickly that we had to involve men as well if we wanted to change the mentality. So it was not an association of women against men. Our honorary president was Patrick Mischo, the office senior partner at Allen & Overy. Before he was senior partner, he worked closely with me on this initiative.
Of course, a lot of progress had been made, especially in recent years. And I would say that at my firm there is more awareness that we should adjust our culture to make it more inclusive. Two years ago, we developed our Diversity Committee where we deal not only with gender, but also with people with disabilities, LGBTQ…
We had to show that we were very serious, and that it was not only a management matter. On that committee we have a lot of associates and employees, so it is very much a bottom-up approach. It’s good to have a proper structure. You need to have the commitment and the momentum from everybody within the firm.
We often hear that the younger generation is changing its perception of careers. They want to be more focused on a specialisation, and not on a career in a particular firm. Have you noticed that change?
You know, we have been talking about generation Z for a long time now. I have the feeling that they care much more about the meaning of their job. Having a sense of what you are doing is very important, and work-life balance is very important to them.
One partner told me that he recently had a discussion with a new recruit, and it was the first time he had heard someone had joined us, apparently, because we have very good pro bono activity. People have been happy to join us for the holidays or for the pay, but we never thought that the differentiator would be our pro bono activities.
I think everybody is more concerned about having a better work-life balance
So I think you’re right, the new generation have different values, different motivation, to join a law firm. They are less interested than the older generation in money and career. But I think the real game changer has been the covid crisis we just went through. And it’s not a matter of generations. I think everybody is more concerned about having a better work-life balance, having more meaning in your life, finding a job that is closer to your values.
Is that making retention more difficult nowadays?
I don’t want to be over-optimistic but so far it hasn’t affected our turnover. We are probably at the same rate as, let’s say, if you take an average over the last five years. We are lucky in the industry that we do have a turnover which is pretty low compared to our competitors.
I think we managed this crisis very well, offering people flexibility and safety. We never rushed them back to the workplace. In the summer of 2020 we formed a working group to give people perspective. And we offered them a 60-40 split. They are able to work 40% at home, or elsewhere, and they have to be 60% in the office. We don’t know when this crisis will be over, and it’s not over now. But at least that gave them perspective of our intention.
What role is technology playing in the legal sector and is it affecting the profiles you are seeking?
To be honest, technology hasn’t changed a lot. Of course, something that changed significantly during that crisis was digitalisation. I think the landscape of legal work will change with that legal tech influence, because we are just at the beginning of something. At the London office of Allen & Overy, they have created Fuse, a space dedicated to legal tech startups. And we really built a relationship and partnership with some of the new companies in order to improve the way we are working, especially for the repetitive tasks.
I think that will benefit both the clients and the lawyer. Because the lawyer will focus on more sophisticated work and added value work. And the client will probably make savings. So we are just at the beginning of this evolution, but that may change very significantly in the coming years.
Allen & Overy has recently partnered with the University of Luxembourg to offer a scholarship grant and a fellowship or internship at the A&O offices. What is the strategy behind this move and what does it entail exactly?
We were concerned by our social mobility. We are aware that many of our lawyers come from a privileged background. Because, you know, there is a tendency that you will always recruit people from the best universities. We would like more social diversity. So, we offer a scholarship that we built with the University of Luxembourg. You must not exceed a certain level of revenue to be able to be eligible for the scholarship. And we wanted also to promote Luxembourg, which is why it is a two-way scholarship. It will allow one student from Luxembourg to go abroad. And we will also facilitate the transfer of foreign students to Luxembourg. And we combine that with the opportunity for these students to do a six-month internship with the law firm.
So the scheme is already in place?
It’s already in place this academic year and we have one student coming to Luxembourg from Ireland and we have a student from Luxembourg going to Paris.
We always knew we were a people business, but I think really that has become paramount.
Are soft skills playing an increasingly important role in the workplace?
One soft skill that is really important, especially after the crisis, is everything related to empathy, emotional intelligence and active listening. Of course, these are the leadership skills that you will develop throughout your career. But you have to have the foundation. Of course there are other soft skills, agility and flexibility, being able to have a helicopter view…
I would say, we really put people at the heart of our business. We always knew it. We always knew we were a people business, but I think really that has become paramount.
How important is it that people at Allen & Overy can be their “authentic self” as it states on the company website?
That’s something we are working very hard on. It falls under that diversity agenda. But you know, when you talk about authentic self, it’s not only about gender or sexual orientation, it’s also about coming with your weaknesses. One battle we had to face during the crisis was the mental health issue. The leaders that succeed engage with people, are more authentic and share their own weaknesses and challenges.
During that crisis we built a network called the Mental Health Allies to help people do that coming out, if I can use that analogy from another diversity issue. It’s a network of colleagues that are trained to welcome people who may have a difficulty. It allows those people to speak up… and have one colleague that may help them. Because that was one of the taboos we had within the law firm: you have to be strong, you have to be a hard worker and committed, you can never show any weakness.
So, what sort of diversity goals has Allen & Overy set?
We do have targets, we don’t call them quotas. Notably for the promotion of new partners we aim to have 30% females. And in terms of representation in all the executive management committees the target is 40%. This will be challenging but we feel we have the right people to achieve that.
This article was originally published in Delano’s working in Luxembourg supplement.