Agile working: why is it such a difficult conversation in the legal profession?

Published in – 5.9.16

Flexible working remains a difficult conversation in the legal profession, as firms weigh up the freedom of employees’ requests against the impact on billable hours. Agile working, as it is referred to in legal circles, is caught in this tension caused by the challenge of adapting current models and an understandable nervousness about how this will impact on fee generation.

Agile working in the legal profession resonates throughout the sector, particularly in corporate law firms, but the reality often doesn’t match the rhetoric. Traditional law firm structures, working practices and culture are not easy to change, but the demands of Generation Y and the early crop of millennial lawyers looking to prioritise a work-life balance are becoming ever more vocal. Law firms are struggling with the challenge of how they can adapt, and who they can offer flexible opportunities to.

It centres on billable hours targets: how many hours law firms can charge out their associates to clients. This is typically 1600 hours a year, or six hours a day, often recorded by the minute. After time spent in administration, meetings, and other non-billable activities (lunch, breaks, telephone calls etc.), this equates to a daily total of 10-11 hours in the office. For a cohort – or in bigger firms, an army – of associates, this is the working reality for ten or more years before a minority make it to the holy grail of partnership, while many may move on elsewhere. This “up or out” culture means that associates who fail to make the partnership grade within a critical period (usually 8-12 years) often choose to leave if they feel their career ambitions cannot be met any further within the firm’s structure.

Change is happening, albeit slowly. Over the last two years, several large law firms have introduced pilot schemes and programmes under the banner of flexible working, agile working and remote working. Programmes introducing one day a week or two days a month working from home, flexible working for new parents, flexi-time with ‘fixed core hours’ may appear to be small steps when compared with other industries, but are notable developments from the long hours, ‘presenteeism’ culture which has been the norm for decades.

Of course by law, employees who are also parents of children aged under 17 and carers of some adults have a statutory right to request a change to their working conditions allowing them to care for a child or adult in need.  Whilst the national policy is clear, employees of law firms are often reluctant to exercise their rights compared with industries such as healthcare, technology and marketing.

The 21st century aspiration for greater flexibility within the workplace is a national challenge experienced across all sectors. Research by Timewise shows that only 8.7 per cent of all job vacancies, where the salary exceeds £20,000 a year, offer some element of flexibility. In the legal sector, the problem is even more acute: the figure is just 3 per cent. At the same time, Timewise found that 14.1 million workers – 46 percent of all UK employees – want to have some flexibility at work in their hours or location.

The growth of new-model law firms over the last five years has helped to pioneer the start of change within the profession as a whole. New regulations authorising alternative business structures, as well as the increasing demands of clients for greater accessibility to senior lawyers at more competitive prices, have fuelled ground-breaking business models.

These firms actively embrace contemporary working practices to reduce overhead costs. For them, being flexible means giving lawyers complete choice and control over when, where and how they work, and measuring success on agreed outcomes, rather than the billable hour. Home working is a matter of choice for the lawyer with a focus on getting the work done and a relationship based on commitment and trust between law firm and lawyers. This high degree of working autonomy is increasingly being extended to business support teams too, helping to retain highly-motivated individuals who enjoy greater independence to structure their working day.

The opportunity extends far beyond law firms. The Big Four accountancy firms, for example, have initiated flexible working allowing staff to determine their preferential start and stop times. Even in the most pressured environments, it is starting to become more culturally acceptable. Banks, insurance companies and asset management firms now have flexible working policies that better reflect demand. Many employers can benefit from a fresh approach built on new working practices and a new approach to being flexible. The net result is a virtuous circle: good for employees, good for clients and good for the company. In short, good for business.