From education to employment

Employment law, equal pay and taking on the big law firms

Luke Menzies, Director, Menzies Law, specialist employment law firm.

Luke Menzies, barrister and solicitor, specialising in employment law for the Further Education sector, talks about taking an innovative approach to appointing lawyers and the challenges FE colleges face in preparing for the Gender Pay Gap reporting in April 2018.

Menzies Law has blazed a trail as one of the first niche employment practices, specialising in working with the FE sector.

I started out life as a self-employed barrister, in chambers – doing a wide range of law, including criminal work. Whilst it was great for honing my advocacy skills I wanted to develop my experience and focus on employment law work.

I decided to move in-house and, over the years worked as part of the employment law teams in global firm Womble Bond Dickenson, City of London firm Stephenson Harwood, leading Welsh firm Berry Smith, as well as the employment law team at the Engineering Employers Federation.

After a number of years working in big teams I started to see the benefits of a different approach to delivering employment law advice.

I set up Menzies Law in 2009 as one of the first niche firms, specialising in only this type of work.

What makes Menzies Law different?

For clients, our ethos has always centred on offering them genuine specialist employment law expertise, delivered by nationally recognised senior experts, via innovative fixed-fee options.

But we can only do this by having a team of experts that want to work in this flexible, niche way.

For my lawyer colleagues, we want to provide a very collegiate place for them to thrive as specialists, away from partnership/office politics and the downsides of large corporate law firms.

Gender equality has always been at our core, and led to our practice of welcoming part-time working mums and allowing 100% working-from-home for those of our lawyers who want it.

Colleges get a lot of security from knowing that they’re being advised by a big, well-known law firm. Why should they consider a smaller niche practice?

The growth in smaller, niche firms is a good thing for diversity and competition in the market.  While the large law firms continue to merge at a rate of knots, and so grow smaller and smaller in number, they become increasingly unfertile places for ambitious lawyers to exist and for those that want to develop real sector expertise – such as in the FE sector – unhampered by corporate processes and targets.

Niche firms not only provide 100% dedicated expertise – in that they do nothing else than what you’re asking them to specialise in – but they provide clients with far, far more choice (and value) in terms of how their work is delivered and charged for.

Fixed fee and retainer packages really work for the FE sector because they show a much clearer return on investment – as well as offering much-needed flexibility. In many cases larger firms aren’t as committed to this type of innovation, as the niche firms.

Menzies Law works with some well-known colleges but has relatively few lawyers. How does this benefit college clients?  

Colleges benefit from knowing that they’re important to us –  getting the tailored expertise, service and value they need.

As a small practice, we take care not to take on too many clients, to ensure that we remain very available and responsive, and I’m confident that this is key to our success.  

I believe that clients get a far higher quality of service from niche firms and, once they’ve tasted this, they are never satisfied with less.  I have found it far easier to build strong relationships with contacts too.

I think that the message has to be that the bigger a law firm gets, the less and less personal the service it can offer.  

Every college is different but the one thing they all need is a personal service and that’s hard to get from a big law firm.

An expert on Gender Pay Gap – why focus on this?

Most lawyers have a strong sense of justice and want to assist the underdog.  For me, this common view transformed into developing a strong belief in equality and diversity and the power it has to transform society as a whole, not just HR practices in a business.

At university I found the relationship between gender and the law a fascinating subject, and I’ve done a lot of equality training for college staff, which has made me realise how important it is go get the message across, and how hard this can actually be.

When the GPG reporting duty came onto the horizon it was just the perfect fit for me in terms of legal interest and a strong belief that it was right and would help transform society for the better – and for my two daughters’ futures in the workplace.

Why is this so important for FE colleges?

The Gender Pay Gap is important for ALL organisations, not just colleges. We all know that employers with 250+ people will be required to publish their Gender Pay Gap (GPG), based on their April 2017 pay data, by 4 April 2018.

But knowing where to start in dealing with the risks and impact associated with this, can be a challenge. The new reporting is going to have a massive impact on colleges because of the wide range of types of employees, styles of working and its tendency towards flexible working.

And the fact that this is going to be in the public domain will give people a clear view of the type of organisation they are – impacting not only on whether students want to study there but whether other businesses and community groups want to partner with the college.

As well as having an imminent duty to publish their GPG, colleges are open to an escalating risk of equal pay claims, not to mention reputational risk and an impact on employee (and student) attraction, engagement and retention, the longer they do nothing.

What can colleges do?

Well… I’m sorry to say that if colleges haven’t thought about this until now then they’re cutting it fine to address everything in time for April.

They need to understand, first, how they are performing, and then agree any actions and areas for change.

Our advice would be to conduct a complete study of all areas relating to Gender Pay Gap and Equal Pay.

This means research into their current Gender Pay Gap, an audit of their equal pay performance and a review of staff pay structure, as well as pay-related policies and procedures.

They may also need legal advice on matters arising, as well as a review of the college’s Equality & Diversity training, relating to pay. And that’s where a niche firm, with a deep understanding of the way colleges work can come in handy – you’re not reinventing the wheel and, most importantly, our experts know where to look and the questions to ask, to get to the heart of a challenges like this.

Luke Menzies, Director, Menzies Law, specialist employment law firm.

About Luke Menzies: A barrister and solicitor, specialising in employment law for the Further Education sector. Founder of niche employment law and HR firm, Menzies Law, he has become known as one of the UK’s leading experts on Equal Pay and Gender Pay Gap reporting, analysis and risk assessment, working with colleges across the UK.

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