Law firm gets a taste of its own medicine

2005

A former employee at international law firm Herbert Smith has been awarded almost £40,000 by an employment tribunal after she was refused flexible working arrangements and then made redundant after returning from maternity leave.

Michelle Langton, a senior manager in the firm's IT department, won her claims for direct sex discrimination, sex victimisation, unfair dismissal and contraventions of the Part-Time Workers Regulations after working for Herbert Smith for six years.

In April 2002 she returned from maternity leave, on a part-time basis, which included half a day working from home.

But in September 2003 she came under increasing pressure from her new line manager, George Kalorkoti, to revert to working during the firm's 'core hours'.

She was told there was "no flexibility" for her to continue to do some of her work from home and that her childcare responsibilities were "not the concern of Herbert Smith".

Mr Kalorkoti said that Mrs Langton's future career at the Firm depended on whether she was "planning on having any more children".

Mrs Langton raised a grievance about Mr Kalorkoti's treatment of her and lodged proceedings under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to challenge Herbert Smith's treatment of her.

The tribunal also found one of the firm's senior Partners, Paula Hodges, to have victimised her during the grievance procedure in order to protect the firm's interests.

Having lodged the grievance and proceedings, in January 2004, Michelle was made redundant while pregnant.

As well as the financial award made to Mrs Langton, the Employment Tribunal ordered Herbert Smith to re-engage her as a Business Analysis/Change Manager - on a job share basis.

This role had not been offered to Mrs Langton as an alternative to redundancy but the Tribunal was "not convinced" by Herbert Smith's evidence that Mrs Langton could not carry out this role on a part-time or job-share basis, stating that "in our view she satisfied the requirements of the role… based on her experience and knowledge".

Herbert Smith, which claims on its website to be "committed to a culture of fairness, opportunity and community involvement", is bringing an appeal against the decision.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) will be supporting Mrs Langton at the Employment Appeal Tribunal when the case is heard on 4 and 5 August.

"In the 21st century, it is astonishing that a senior manager in a law firm could think that a women's career potential ends when she starts a family," said Jenny Watson, Acting Chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

"There is no reason why part-time and flexible working should not be available to people working in senior professional roles and the Tribunal's decision makes this very clear. By being so inflexible in its treatment of her, Herbert Smith lost a valuable employee.

"Many mothers – and increasingly fathers too – want to work flexibly to enable them to balance their work and home life. Employers who want to recruit and retain the best and most talented staff need to take notice of this, and make sure their flexible working policies are understood by all managers. That's the best way to prevent costly tribunal claims."

Older Comments

In my experience, commercial law firms are among the least family and female-friendly employers it is possible to work for - and female partners are often the most opposed to any sort of compromise on these issues. And they wonder why so many women leave the profession . . .

Jenny London

They lost their appeal too... See the Equal Opportunities Commission's website:

http://www.eoc.org.uk/Default.aspx?page=17933&lang=en

James London