Whilst many shifts occurred in the legal market after the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps none were more talked about than the movement towards flexible working. Just five years ago, the discussion of such policies would have been considered a radical notion for any law firm - despite the data from the CIPD’s 2019 study suggesting that 58% of UK jobs are considered flexible, the legal industry continued to lag behind its counterparts in making the shift towards a flexible working pattern.
Critics of flexible working have often cited the importance of maintaining a separation of work and home, especially since the legal industry is notorious for their long working hours and daunting billable hours targets. Surprisingly however, many of the top US firms that demand the top hours have been the most forward-thinking in adapting flexible work, with many telling their fee-earners to set up their office as they see fit. It is a moment of pragmatism in an industry that has not always been open to such adjustments.
The monetary effects of working from home cannot be ignored either. Whilst commutes took up a significant amount of time and money for many, the shift to hybrid working means that associates gain more disposable income without a real term increase in their salaries. This does not merely benefit associates however, as city-based firms that have traditionally recruited from the surrounding area now find it easier to recruit top talent that may live out of the city, leading to an increase in the quality of their teams and flexibility within the London legal market.
However, this shift towards flexible working may not be up to the firms entirely. This manifests itself in two ways. First, data from the UK Legal Market 2022 report suggests that for associates considered flight risks, 45% consider “flexible work practices” as the leading factor in decision making. As firms compete to remain competitive in the market, many have had to make the necessary accommodations to continue attracting the top talent (and perhaps more importantly, holding on to them). This is not to say however that such feelings are universal – a study of 1,000 British office workers, including 100 lawyers, has suggested that 46% feel more isolated when working from home. Regardless, post-COVID trends in the legal market have indicated a strong desire by associates to have the choice be available to them.
However, this desire for flexibility extends beyond private practice. A survey of 350 in-house lawyers by the Law Gazette also suggests that 66% would rather their employer adopt a flexible working policy. Unlike many of the leading firms in the market however, 57% of UK in-house team respondents report being back in the office full time. This suggests a severe lag in an already lagging industry, with in-house legal teams not enjoying the same benefits as their in-firm counterparts.
On both sides however, the legal industry still has some way to go in acknowledging the true benefits of allowing for flexibility at the desks, and further still in harnessing its potential. The benefits are obvious, with associates able to enjoy more quality time with their families, more flexibility over working hours and an overall increase in happiness. Meanwhile, the added gains of productivity that come from flexible working lead to a net gain in the long term for the firms. If your firm or in-house team has yet to catch up with the rest of the market and offer a flexible working pattern, it might be time to consider a change. If you’re in this boat, let’s have a confidential chat.