Making Work, Work

The legal profession is less than a trailblazer in terms of flexible working practices. It is of course not the only guilty party. Other industries that have been criticised or determined poor for flexibility include aerospace (in a survey on women’s perception of openness to flexibility) and perhaps more surprisingly, the arts sector.

Is law filled with more obstinate traditionalists with no desire to change and adapt? In our experience, this is highly doubtful. However, the complete picture is somewhat more complex. There are a number of persisting practices preventing the legal industry adapting successfully to flexible working.

#1 Telling, Not Showing

When firms only pay lip service to flexible working, instead of incorporating it as the norm of the working culture, people will be reluctant to take it up. There is a reluctance to take up flexible working when offered as a specific policy, to be seen as an exception or seeking special treatment – a stigma still exists. Bridging the gap between policy and practice means implementing official flexible working guidelines as well as making the company culture more flexible overall.

  • Easy Fix: Are your top management or top workers taking up flexible working? Once they do, others will follow.

There is also the Catch-22 scenario of lack of role models and untapped talent means no example for workers coming through. This unfortunately means that more firms are likely to sit on the fence when it comes to offering flexible working options, believing that the demand is not their or that the practice simply doesn’t work in the legal profession.

This does not mean the demand is not there, in fact majority of workers have been found across industry to prioritise flexible working when considering the desirability of a company or position. In addition, the practice of flexible and remote work within law has proven to not only work well, but provide more efficiency and productivity for clients and consultants alike.

  • Easy Fix: Offer a set number of days per quarter for flexible working, at the lawyer’s discretion.

Global health care company Roche has a unique flexible work program that offers employees 12 days of remote work per quarter (48 days/year). If an employee needs to stay home to be with kids or sick parents or to focus on a specific project, the company trusts that they will still get their work done.

#2 Relying on Outdated Technologies

The legal industry has been slow to embrace new tech-led agile infrastructure, but flexible and remote working practices need the right tools to be successful – cloud-based technology, online collaboration tools and online security protocols. If your law firm is still living in the golden age of hard-drive doc storage, physical team meetings or fixed working hours, it’s time to open up.

Technology plays a vital role and it is often simply the case that some industries have not focused on investment in technology capabilities to allow the easy, secure provision of flexible working practices. It’s not just an issue for lawyers however: clients in more technology-advanced industries will naturally be looking for more innovation and flexibility from law firms and anyone providing legal services to them. Law’s lack of investment in new technology is at its root an institutional problem – from the traditions of the courtroom to the dominance of firms and billable hours – so it’s not going to change overnight, progress will need to be driven.

Easy Fix:

#3 Being Afraid to Lose Control

Which leads us to this next point. Investing in technology and flexible work in the legal industry may mean a complete change in the way that legal services are provided. Larger, traditional law firms will have to adapt immensely in order to meet flexibility demands from lawyers and clients.

While other industries that have been more exposed to non-traditional ways of working see the trend as an opportunity to be more agile and adaptable, the legal industry sees only a loss of control – of data, of lawyers who are spending less time in the office, and of their client relationships as they become more focused on the individual legal professional rather than the reputation of the firm.

There is also the fear of making the job ‘easier’ somehow devaluing the expertise required in the profession, instead of giving legal talent more time to concentrate on important aspects of the role such as court appearances and counsel. Georgetown Law’s Centre for the Study of the Legal Profession offers some insights into the need for the industry to let go of the old models and adapt to a changing market.

  • Easy Fix: Empower lawyers by entrusting them with projects and deadlines at their own pace.

#4 Rewarding Long Desk Hours

It’s often said we live in a world that rewards extroversion; people more visible generally deemed more contribution, while those who work away quietly and aren’t drawing attention to themselves are sometimes overlooked. Linked to this, long desk hours in the office is rewarded in a similar way, particularly in law, where the more time we are seen to be at our desks, the more dedicated and hard-working we are presumed to be. However, studies have clearly shown that overwork leads to more mistakes and reduced productivity.

The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss has previously spoken out against presenteeism, identifying it as the key reason for a lack of gender equality in the profession. A TUC study in 2013 found that legal professionals are the most likely workers to do unpaid overtime. More generally, presenteeism is a damaging aspect of working culture across the board – badly managed workloads, health issues resulting from reluctance to take sick days, mistakes arising from fatigue and overwork, the list goes on.

  • Easy Fix: Reward productive lawyers and encourage them to get a life.

#5 Sticking to Full-Time Positions

Most big law firms stick to the traditional model of full-time on-site lawyer careers, regardless of your personal circumstances. While that may have the norm a decade ago, the rules of the game are changing. People want a better work-life balance or simply put, they want a life. Offering only traditional legal jobs cuts from the talent pool all the expert lawyers who are also entrepreneurs, who care for a family or who cannot commute to the office every day.

To prevent brain-drain and the loss of a highly skilled workforce that demands flexible working, here are two ideas that are easy to implement.

  • Easy  Fix: Encourage job sharing part-remote working.

A job-share team is formed by two professionals who form a partnership to perform one job. An example workweek might involve Teammate A working Monday to Wednesday and Teammate B working Wednesday to Friday at the same position, with some hand-off and complementary responsibilities on the overlap day.

A part-remote working system can mean 4 days at the office, 1 day working from home.

Within the legal profession, there has long needed to be more understanding about individual work patterns and productivity conditions and allowing people to adapt to a work flow/pattern that suits their individual profile and lifestyle outside of work. Change is however more critical than ever, as the industry must adapt to the innovations and changing attitudes to working culture in order to stay competitive. Flexible working is just one part of an impending institutional overhaul.