A happy firm is a flexible firm

Louise Hadland argues that having flexible working is the enlightened way of running a firm

Everybody’s talking about it – working flexibly, that is.

However, not all law firms are as far down the line as they should be when it comes to offering a first-class working environment.

Flexible working is a subject that has taxed Tony Blair, the unions, the Americans, business leaders et al – but it’s one that won’t go away. Just this month the Government announced its ‘open all hours’ plan for schools, in part to provide childcare for working parents.

Gone are the days when it was macho to be the last one to leave the office, and gone too is the prevailing City culture which militates against flexibility.

In its place is solid evidence that the benefits of working flexibly – for employers and employees – are overwhelming.

At Shoosmiths we recognise that the social expectations of a work-life balance have extended beyond women with young children to fathers and young workers.

And I am happy to report that solid, practical business reasons lie behind the firm’s approach.

More and more women are coming into the legal profession.
Shoosmiths’ current solicitor split is 44:56 male and female, and if we want to retain these key people we must be flexible.

At the same time, it is vital to stress that our approach is not at the cost of business – we have to manage client needs and we find our clients are more than tolerant of work-life balance issues. Our set-up gets the best out of staff yet also ensures clients have the level of responsiveness they require.

Shoosmiths’ flexibility includes allowing staff to ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ up to eight days of their holiday each year. At two points during the calendar year, January and June, staff can either accumulate or offload up to eight days of their holiday entitlement up to a maximum of 33 days per year and not including bank holidays. Our people simply love that option.

Home working is also key, with one in nine lawyers at Shoosmiths working part-time and one in five employees overall.

There have also been occasions where both assistants and partners have been allowed to take sabbaticals. Ours is a pragmatic approach.
The firm views sabbaticals as an important element in career development which can broaden experience and skills sets. There have also been occasions where it has been inappropriate and we have had to turn people down.

That we look at cases seriously and individually underlines the fact that we will not superimpose an archaic culture which has no grounding in today’s business environment. All law firms should aim for a combination of quality work within a sensible work-life balance as part of a polite, friendly, warm atmosphere in which to undertake that work.

When someone walks out of the door for good at any institution, it is not just the head count that diminishes. They take with them all the experience, knowledge and client contacts that they have accumulated. It is appreciating what that loss means and the cost of recruiting that counts.

It seems like everybody’s talking about this subject – but some are putting the supporting culture in place and are more serious about it than others.

Louise Hadland is HR director at Shoosmiths