A View from the Top: Janet Cooper OBE, founder of Tapestry Compliance LLP

At Tapestry, a law firm based in Yorkshire, 75 per cent of staff and 85 per cent of senior staff are female.

Janet Cooper was into flexible working long before it was fashionable. She joined Linklaters, a leading law firm headquartered in London, as a trainee lawyer in 1984 and made partner in 1991, in the shortest time possible. A couple of years later, she faced losing one of her best lawyers because the woman in question was about to have her second child at the same time as her husband was relocated away from London.

“She was going to leave to get a job locally, but we made it work so that she could work flexibly,” Cooper says. “She’s actually still at Linklaters, which shows the power of working this way.”

Flexible working became the heart of Cooper’s philosophy when she set up her own firm called Tapestry Compliance with Bob Grayson, a former in-house counsel of Shell, in 2011. Tapestry has just been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the highest award for British businesses, for its significant growth in overseas sales of some of the world’s biggest companies. Cooper herself was awarded an OBE in the New Years’ Honours list for services to equality, women’s empowerment and employee share ownership.

While London has long laid claim to the country’s best law firms, Tapestry, which is based in Yorkshire, bucks the trend. Two offices in Sheffield and Leeds have hoovered up top staff from magic circle firms looking to live outside the capital.

Cooper says she wanted to start a firm in the north of England because of her own experience as a trainee lawyer. “Back in the day to get a good job in corporate law you had to go to London. So I went down to Linklaters,” she remembers. “I had to leave all my lovely family and friends to get the job. These days with technology you don’t have to. So my goal was to create jobs in Yorkshire so people didn’t need to leave.”

Born in Warrington, but brought up near Huddersfield, Cooper never expected to become a lawyer. Her mother managed a coffee shop in Huddersfield and her father managed a steel mill. She left school at 16 and did A-levels and an OND in business studies at c before joining Rowntree Mackintosh, the sweet company, as a secretary in Halifax.

It was at college that a teacher called Bernard Atha, a former Lord Mayor of Leeds known for supporting minorities and those with disabilities, encouraged her to pursue law. Atha helped her find a suitable university and they landed on Leeds. Cooper stayed in Yorkshire to do her training contract and then left for London when she qualified.

Though her career would bring her full circle, offering women not so different from herself a great career in Yorkshire, her home remains in London. She talks to The Independent from her desk at home in Ealing Broadway, where she works remotely and lives with David Geake, her husband of almost 35 years, who is a retired lawyer.

She visits the two company offices and the 30 staff often. Bob Grayson, her partner, built the team up in Sheffield and runs the office from day to day, while Cooper spends a lot of time abroad working with the big clients the firm is now known for.

Grayson’s experience of managing major global projects, combined with Cooper’s expertise as global head of a magic circle employee share plans department, has attracted clients including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Aviva and Dell. Seventy per cent of Tapestry’s business came from the US in the last year, with other clients in Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Germany and Japan.

Clients are also attracted by fees up to 40 per cent cheaper than the competition. “Being based in Yorkshire means we’re so much more cost effective,” Cooper says. “Rent is so much cheaper up there and that makes it cheaper for our clients.”

Cooper credits Tapestry’s flexible working strategy for helping parents especially to keep working after the birth of a child. This has led to an impressive retention record: only one staff member has left in the last six years, while fifty per cent of the firm’s work comes from repeat business.

Three quarters of the staff are female and Cooper says the proportion is even greater for senior management, which is 85 per cent female. “There are issues in all City firms about retaining and promoting women when most of the City firms have less than 20 per cent women partners,” she later tells me via e-mail. “That masks that even fewer women make it to senior management in law firms or as General Counsel.”

Not all those making use of flexible working are parents. Rebecca Campsall joined the firm as a legal trainee just as her athletics career was taking off. Now she’s ranked 11th for the 100 metre sprint in the UK. She hopes to compete in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia and later in the 2020 Olympics. Campsall trains every evening and every Sunday and in two years, she has never missed a session.

“In terms of England selections, they really don’t give you much notice, so I could be told on Thursday, ‘On Friday you’re flying out to Bratislava.’ In a normal workplace that would be really difficult,” Campsall says. When a consultant recommended Tapestry for the flexible working, Campsall made sure to be open about her training schedule in the interview.

“A lot of firms can promise that it will be ok, but it was clear when I came here that this was the only place where I found that it was encouraged,” she says.

A quarter of British women do not return to work after childbirth and the pay gap gets increasingly wider for those who do, with women earning on average 17.5 per cent less than men in their forties, according to research by the Trades Union Congress.

Cooper, who does not have children, says she hasn’t experienced sexism at work. “Linklaters were a good firm for promoting merit. I wouldn’t say it was the same for everybody, but I was very grateful for them,” she says. “But it was very unusual going into a room where you weren’t the only women at the table.”

Nonetheless she recognises that at some firms, having a baby is assumed to mean that a lawyer wants to do less. “We need to understand the unconscious biases that go on in decision-making about promotions and assignments,” she says. “Particularly if a lawyer has children there may be the assumption that they don’t want training or to spend a lot of time abroad. I don’t agree with quotas but I do think things need to be improved.”

Tapestry hopes to show through its flexible policy that parents, and women especially, can be excellent lawyers if they are given the chance to thrive at a time when 60 per cent of law graduates are female, according to the Law Society, while only 27 per cent of partners are women in firms of over 50 people.

“My mother left school at 13 and was a very smart lady but didn’t have the opportunities I have had,” says Cooper, who was once on the UK board of UN Women, the United Nations for Gender Equality. “I am very keen to support women to reach their potential.”

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