Can lawyers work flexibly?

It can be difficult to achieve flexible working within law firms, where the long working hour culture prevails. But with more people looking for a better work-life balance, some firms are moving away from traditional practices and are offering more flexibility. Sara Duxbury, head of people at Fletchers Solicitors, which appears in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For, takes a look at how firms can break the mould and still get the job done.

2037138203_a59a33ae15_bAn average day in the legal sector can be extremely long, with lawyers usually having to juggle lengthy commutes, huge workloads and client demands – all at the same time. But while a career in the legal sector can be extremely demanding, it’s important to recognise that lawyers are human and sometimes need a break from the pressure too. The good news is that some law firms have started taking note and are recognising the benefits of flexible working. A small number of firms have started to introduce flexible working policies to allow lawyers to plan their working day around other commitments, and achieve a healthy balance between work and home life.

Despite a few law firms breaking away from tradition, the rest still seem to be set in their ways and are more reluctant to adopt flexible working. But as people become less willing to sacrifice their home life, firms need to embrace new working models or risk losing their top talent. Below we look at some of the common questions asked by law firms when exploring the option of flexible working.

Can flexible working still meet client expectations?

It’s true that a career in law isn’t a nine to five job, and lawyers are often required to work late or be available whenever the case demands it.  With this in mind, many firms question how flexible working could work with client expectations. For example, what happens if an urgent issue arises while a lawyer is away on a flexi-day?

We found a way to overcome this by implementing a structure of specialised teams. Each team is dedicated to a particular part of a case, with every member having expert knowledge on that specific area. If someone is absent, for example on a flexi-day or because they have left early, and a client calls to speak about their case, the bespoke switchboard system will automatically call the entire team who can assist with that particular enquiry. As the case management system is accessible by all staff members, there will always be someone on hand to log on and provide an update on a client’s file.

With flexible working, it’s all about encouraging better time management. So in a legal setting if a client requested a call after hours, the lawyer would still be expected to stay behind and take it. It just means that they would be rewarded for working late, as they could then take these hours back at a later date.

What would this mean for the billable hour culture?

Most firms make their money by billing clients by the hour. So if lawyers are taking time off, would this mean the number of billable hours is reduced? The simple answer is no.

Flexible working shouldn’t really have an impact, as it doesn’t mean that lawyers would end up working fewer hours. They still have to put the hours in, but have the option of taking some of the extra time back. The reality is that most lawyers work more time than they take back, but appreciate the option and the extra holiday days this can provide.

Can flexible employees keep up with their work and progress in their careers?

It’s important to bear in mind that flexibility is a privilege, not a right. So if someone isn’t performing to his or her full potential, there is the option to remove this privilege.

Understandably, employees are still expected to keep up with their work, but that doesn’t mean slaving until 9pm every night. On some occasions, lawyers may need to work late or be more flexible in the hours they work. The key point is to properly recognise and reward this flexibility by allowing staff to take that time back at a later date, when the workload allows.

At what rate is the rest of the legal industry adopting flexible working?

It’s hard to know the policies other firms are implementing, but on the whole, adopting a flexible working scheme is not standard within the industry. More firms should be embracing flexible working, as it’s a big selling point for good lawyers looking to escape the city rat race and find a better work-life balance.

The dynamics of the modern workforce, and the structure of work in general, are now changing across the majority of industries. In today’s well-connected and fast-paced society, the notion of nine to five working is likely to become obsolete. As a result, when it comes to competing for the top talent, the companies offering the greatest flexibility will be the ones attracting the best people.

The legal sector needs to move away from thinking flexible working isn’t suited to the role of a lawyer because the reality is very different. Embracing flexible working will make for a happier and more productive team; a team that’s actually more willing to work late knowing their efforts will be rewarded. Businesses across other sectors are already recognising the changing needs of their staff and are implementing flexible policies on a wider scale. It’s about time law firms took notice and got on board.

Sara Duxbury (1)

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