Flexibility and agility in law firms – the impact, benefits and challenges

Flexibility and agility in law firms – the impact, benefits and challenges

In the last few years, flexible working has become more and more of a standard practice across a range of industries. A study by Deloitte found that over 60% of employers offer flexible working, while 87% of full-time employees either currently do or wish to. The causes of this shift include: a heightened awareness of employee well-being; the invention of facilitating technology; the cost saving impact of less desk space; and the collapse of traditional gender roles, seeing both more women re-entering the workforce after having children and more men balancing work with family commitments.

The legal sector has largely embraced the change, with many international, national and boutique/on-demand  firms offering flexi-time, remote working or hot-desking. The drive behind this isn’t purely employee demand: many firms recognise the benefits of having a more agile workforce. So, what are the benefits of flexible working for lawyers, as well as the challenges it brings with it?

 

The benefits of flexible working

 

Increased staff engagement and satisfaction

Trusting people makes them feel valued as employees. They are more likely to stay at the firm and be loyal for a long period of time if they feel supported and able to balance their professional and personal obligations; rigidity and micro-management don’t lead to long-term satisfaction. Especially within the legal sector, which can be an intensely pressured environment, the health, both mental and physical, of staff is incredibly important. Flexible working allows employees to organise their own day, cut down commuting time (which they can dedicate to work), and have an improved work/life balance – all of which contribute to better wellbeing and engagement.

Attract the best people

Similarly, flexible working is a huge draw when trying to get people ‘through the door’. In one survey, 40% of people stated that it was the most valuable benefit they could be offered. A lot of contracts are won – and lost – due to flexible working; for many, it is non-negotiable, whether because of family commitments, a disability or location. Firms that encourage flexible working better position themselves as an employer of choice, therefore attracting the attention of the highest calibre of talent.

Increased productivity

iStock 875249538Everyone works differently – from early birds to night owls, each employee has a different rhythm. Allowing them to work when they feel at their freshest heightens productivity, meaning the firm gets the best out of its employees. Studies have also found that companies which have adopted flexible working tend to see reduced sick leave and absences as employees feel less run down and are able to structure their day according to client/customer demands as well as their family needs. For example, if you are supporting Australian or other overseas clients, a 9-5 working day simply doesn’t make sense. Plus the open plan environments which most individuals now work in can be distracting and also noisy/unprofessional when individuals are making confidential calls.

More responsive working culture

Legal decisions often come with tight time constraints and pressure. As technological developments connect us more and more, it’s imperative that firms adapt with it. If law firms have the infrastructure set up to enable lawyers to consult from anywhere in the world, at any time, they can ultimately be more responsive and agile.

 

The challenges of flexible working

 

Lack of experience

Law revolves heavily around building connections and relationships with others. Newly qualified lawyers don’t have this network and it can much harder to make a name for oneself if working from home rather than the office. It also limits inexperienced lawyers from observing and learning from the work of superior colleagues. In this regard, flexible working may only be an option for those who have worked their way up and are more experienced, with an extensive network of clients to whom they are already a trusted advisor.

iStock 1062126092Technology permitting

In comparison to other sectors, law is not particularly tech-forward. A number of small and medium sized law firms may not have the resources in place, such as cloud-based technology, to support flexible working. More and more firms are investing in modern systems, however it may be a while before this is the norm. In short, the CRM and time recording, phone and cloud share system has to be accessible from anywhere for technology to not be a barrier.

Trust is key

Some employers worry that employees won’t work as intensively or productively at home, as there are potentially more distractions and it is easier to procrastinate. A degree of trust has to be established – it is the employee’s responsibility to prove that they understand what is expected of them and to meet their client and work demands. In return, they should be trusted to do so, no matter where or when they choose to work. The fact that lawyers are time recorded and information is on a shared network should surely allow even the most sceptical manager to support working from home.

On the client side of things, some clients, especially those who lean more towards the traditional end of the spectrum, may be wary of using a lawyer who isn’t based in the office – but the truth is that as long as you are available to them when they need or within a reasonable turnaround time, why does this matter? 

 

Last but not least….the final word

Capture6Why did many of the leading tech companies, Big 4 accounting firms and others have the commercial sense to set up ‘’hubs’ in the city but took limited office space? Because they have for years had their staff working remotely or in other space outside the city (all easily accessible to ‘Out of London’ but commutable locations). And why did they do this? The trend was not sparked by ‘a drive to work/life balance’ just as it is not now the key driver for law firms. They cottoned on early to the fact that this was an easy way to increase profitability and, potentially, productivity and save on one of the number one costs for their business – rent. All of the other benefits above were natural impacts of this decision.

The phenomenon of flexible working has had an impact on almost every sector, with it becoming ever more mainstream. It marks a positive cultural shift in how people accept the importance of work/life balance but let’s be honest, if it didn’t directly increase profitability or productivity, would it have flourished as it has? As more traditional sectors like law look to modernise, it will almost certainly play a decisive role in which firms thrive. While there are challenges associated with it, these days, with technology allowing visibility and outputs, there are limited excuses for not supporting it. Those who can overcome the challenges and implement a productive and agile workforce through flexible working policies will certainly reap the rewards all round.

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