Making Work, Work

We already know the modern work paradigm is shifting; sitting at a desk in an office from 9 to 5 is no longer the default, and the rise of flexible working is gaining more attention. A recent YouGov survey has revealed that only 6% of working Britons now put in those hours. Instead, 73% work either part-time or with some form of flexible working arrangement (Deloitte and Timewise study).

Flexible working is no longer just a special condition for some people in work. Essentially it’s a way of working that suits the needs of employees of all kinds. This could mean starting and leaving the office earlier or working from home a few days a week. But as Anna Whitehouse of Mother Pukka Flex Appeal campaign explained: “Flexible working doesn’t mean working less or slacking off, it means finding hours that suit your life and how you best work. And it’s not just an issue for parents, either – it’s one of the few issues that both the unionists of the TUC and the employers at the CBI agree on: flexible working is better for staff, and it’s better for profits.”

The benefits are indeed tangible and wide ranging. Vodafone conducted a global survey about flexible working back in 2016, revealing that companies who had implemented agile strategies:

  • Increased company profits (according to 61% of respondents);
  • Improved productivity (83%);
  • Positively impacted company reputation (58%); and
  • Improved staff morale (76%).

Flexi-work also has a knock-on effect on recruitment. As Clare Butler, recruitment expert and Global Managing Director of Lawrence Simmons Recruitment, revealed to Catherine Gleave in our recent piece on “The Future’s Flexi”, employers need to be open-minded about their approach to flexible working going forward because it can make all the difference when it comes to talent acquisition, with many contracts won and lost over this very issue. There is a push towards respecting the work-life balance across the legal profession and if companies push back, they risk losing out on some serious talent. This is especially true regarding working parents and millennials for whom workplace culture, of which this plays a part, is often more important than traditional status indicators, like salary.

Rights to Flexible Working

Companies may not actively offer it as part of recruitment, but after six months in a job, every employee in the UK has the right to request flexible working. While companies aren’t obliged to acquiesce to a request, they are obliged to consider it “in a reasonable manner”. Are you thinking of pitching the case for flexi working to your boss or trying negotiate (or even lay the groundwork for the future) on accepting a new position? Read the LexisNexis piece on the Flex Appeal and #BeBoldforChange here. It’s got the answers to two of the most common – and increasingly outdated – objections: “If we did it for you, we’d have to do it for everyone!” and “You’ll be less productive.”

Even though some companies might dig in their heels, relying on the predictable old arguments for not implementing agile working policies, flexible working is on the rise – both in the country, and in the legal profession, marking a significant turning point for the industry in 2019. As more companies are working agile policies into their contracts, the legal market as a whole is thriving, with even more talented individuals either entering or returning to the workforce. As Catherine Gleave notes: “Not only do women feel more empowered to return to the workplace on their own terms, the rising popularity of flexible working means that a varied work structure is the standard rather than a special requirement, thus preventing any bias against candidates who require a more flexible work schedule.”

Working Smarter

In addition to injecting even more talent into the marketplace, flexible working is just one of the ways the modern legal workforce can work smarter, rather than harder. And it’s being facilitated largely by the advance of technology. Taken at its most basic, laptops and smartphones mean that lawyers can be online and contactable 24/7, no matter where they are in the world. But add to that the plethora of cutting-edge legal tools, such as case management software, and it’s clear that legal professionals can remain connected to both their clients and colleagues without being physically present in the office. They can execute tasks, securely access shared files, issue and review contracts, send out invoices, and much more.

There’s no more putting it off: the legal market is evolving and the traditional working model is going to diminish. As the market changes, different, more agile working models are on the rise, from portfolio careers to flexible working. These models can benefit both employee and employer, as companies are beginning to realise and act upon, and as seen in the continued success of organisations such as Obelisk Support, which recently joined the FT Future 100 UK list as a diversity leader – the only legal company to do so.

But for those considering taking a flexible approach to work, there are undoubtedly challenges, from the risk of succumbing to procrastination to figuring out how to engender trust at work and stay on top of client care. But at its core there are certain things to do in the run up to taking the leap:

  • Be realistic about what you can do on a flexible schedule and take the time to figure out how and where.
  • Find a forward-looking company with a positive work culture.
  • Research the right tools and technology to facilitate working efficiently out of the office.
  • Discuss it with your team, both full-time in-house and other flexible workers, to make sure there’s buy-in and understanding.
  • Stay flexible and carry out reviews of your arrangement. Be prepared to adjust and change as you go.

For more practical, easy-to-implement solutions and suggestions, read the LexisNexis article on the Future of Law – “Flexible Working for Lawyers: How Far Can You Flex?

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.