Marc Tobias investigates top law firms policies on flexible working.
Over the past few months there has been a steady stream of news from law firms regarding their views on flexible or ‘agile’ working. We were interested to see whether this was likely to become the norm, or just isolated amongst a certain type of firm. In order to investigate, our consultants at DMJ spoke to a wide range of our clients including US firms, top 20 practices, West End clients and boutique firms to see whether this was a trend we could expect to continue.
Interestingly, nearly all the firms that we spoke to already had some form of flexible or agile policy in place. The most common approach appears to be on a case by case, or team by team basis. This ranges from the option to work from home every now and then as personal circumstances might necessitate, through to formal policies, where people have a set day per week or fortnight working from home. With some exceptions, those that offer set days typically have a qualifying period from joining before a request can be made. Firms feel that it is important for new joiners to understand the working practices of their new firm and department, and to get to know their colleagues.
What also became apparent is that it is more likely to be experienced lawyers who take advantage of flexible policies rather than recently qualified. This is not because junior lawyers are trusted less but is more to do with training and development. Many of the clients we spoke to felt that despite the advancement of technology and the adoption of this by law firms, there is still a need for junior lawyers to be in the office so that they can overhear their partners and colleagues in action. This plays a huge part in lawyers learning some of the softer client skills that cannot be taught in a classroom. For those clients that do not have a policy in place, and are not planning on adopting firm wide policies, training and personal development was the key reason against it.
There appears to be a wide range of reasons why law firms are actively looking at true agile working policies, and it centres around what a law firm needs to look like as the business model adapts. One of the main drivers behind this is staff retention, particularly amongst female lawyers. Many articles have been written about how the ratio of male to female lawyers shifts as lawyers become more experienced. Agile working is clearly an attempt to keep the many talented female lawyers within the profession. Those Firms who were the first to adopt agile working, viewed it as a differentiator in attracting the best talent in a highly competitive market place.
Another factor driving the shift towards agile working is the cost of office space in London. Property costs are usually the biggest fixed cost that a firm has. As firms come under increasing pressure on fees from clients and a move away from hourly billing, it makes financial sense to maximise the space they have and to utilise it effectively.
The final factor that is driving this working shift is technology. More and more firms have cloud based IT systems that allow staff to log in and work remotely. Internal messaging and video systems make it easy to chat with a colleague or partner about a matter without needing to be physically present. One thing that did surprise me when analysing the feedback was that regional firms with multiple offices were much more comfortable with agile working than the traditional city firms. This may be because they have always practiced a form of flexible working, with teams spread out across multiple offices, which in turn needed them to be early adopters of the technology that is allowing it to become more common place.
In conclusion, more and more firms will be looking at flexible and agile working. This may be driven by economics, staffing issues, or just wanting to be at the forefront of new working practices. My personal feeling is that it will take time for agile working to become fully accepted, especially for junior lawyers who still need to develop their skills. It is clear that many firms are embracing the concept and hopefully it will begin to have a positive impact on gender equality at the top of the profession. However, it is worth remembering that law is ultimately a people business with connections, relationships and teams built by having people working with and learning from each other. Technology can support this, but it cannot replace it.
If you are interested in hearing more about flexible working, or what roles we are working on which currently offer flexible working, please contact Marc Tobias on 020 3058 1441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.