Flexible future?

In the cut-throat world of talent retention, flexible working is becoming a must, but can this newer way of working win the hearts and minds of those long-hours stalwarts?

An increasing number of UK law firms is recognising the importance of offering their staff flexible work hours as employees seek to balance their work lives and private lives, but while programmes are supposed to be open to everyone, it seems to be mainly women with children who take them up.

More than three-quarters of the UK’s top 50 law firms offer some form of flexible working and almost half offer alternative career paths.

Regional law firm Mills & Reeve has seen the highest take-up of flexible working, with 153 of its 407 fee-earners having left the traditional nine-to-five, five-day working week behind.

The firm’s HR director Sandy Boyle says most of the employees who took up the flexible working option were women with childcare concerns, but that there were some exceptions. “We did have someone who competed at a very high level in chess and they reduced their working week to do that,” says Boyle.

He adds that most of the lawyers who opt to work flexible hours are of a senior level. “The junior levels of lawyer are almost all full time,” he says. “They’re building up their career and they don’t tend to have childcare responsibilities. We have a number of partners – exclusively female – that don’t work full time, and largely they’ve done it from before getting partnership – it’s not something that’s happened after they become partners.”

Boyle says that, in the current market, where firms have to compete for the top lawyers, firms need to offer a wide range of working options. “If you’re not willing to look at flexible working, then you’re at a competitive disadvantage,” he commments.

He says that it is not just about attracting the best staff either, but about retaining the top lawyers firms already have.

Boyle believes that employees who have taken up flexible working are as productive, if not more so, than those doing traditional hours. “If you do give that flexibility and treat people as grownups, then they’ll repay that,” he says.

However, he also says that some lawyers needed to be convinced of the benefits of flexible working. “It does require a change of thinking with law firm management, who’ve grown up with the culture that long hours equals success,” he says.

New technology also means that it is now easier for employees to work from home. “Just because someone isn’t in the office doesn’t mean they’re not working,” emphasises Boyle.

Beachcroft, Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP), Cobbetts and Eversheds also offer flexible working to their staff.

The ‘Lifestyle Policy’ has been available at Eversheds for a number of years and lawyers are able to take it up so long as they can show their flexible hours will not be detrimental to the business.

Some firms make a clear distinction between flexible working and part-time work.

At Linklaters staff may work a percentage of full-time hours. In London alone 61 fee-earners work flexibly, from professional support lawyers (PSLs) to partners. A total of 16 partners work flexibly in London. The majority of flexible workers are female, but men account for 30 per cent of the London total.

“Sometimes when people say flexible working they mean rigid part-time working,” says global head of HR Jill King. “So we try to encourage a flexible approach. It may be 80 per cent or 90 per cent of working time, rather than saying it’s 9am to 3pm Monday to Thursday.”

However, King says flexible working still has to be managed to ensure that a number of people from one group are not all away at the same time, to the detriment of clients’ needs.

“You have to be sure you’re fair to everybody,” she says. “And you have to guard against lots of people in one group doing it.”

She says hours are determined according to the role of the employee. “We don’t have a formal minimum of hours – it’s role-dependent,” explains King. “If you’re in a front-line role it’s different. Typically it’s 70-80 per cent, dependent on the practice area. For transactional work it’s best to look at time out between transactions.”

Ultimately, King says the success of flexible working depends on the employee’s attitude towards it. “I’ve come across so much rigid thinking about flexible working,” she says. “It’s a state of mind. It can work if the person has the right approach of blending the various aspects of their life.”

Beachcroft has offered flexible working for some time, but is now carrying out a three-month trial to include home working. After the trial is completed the firm intends to offer a more extensive programme.

Senior partner Simon Hodson cites a number of reasons why flexible working is a good idea. And he says Beachcroft is especially interested in offering home working to employees as it is not only good for the employee, but also helps the environment.

“Fourteen per cent of our carbon footprint is from commuting,” he contends.

Home working is also of great benefit to employees who have to travel long distances. Hodgson says one of Beachcroft’s employees now saves up to four hours a day on commuting time by working from home. “People can save their commuting time and that’s time they can use for themselves,” he says.

Beachcroft is planning on investing in technology to ensure more of its staff can work from home if they desire. Hodgson concedes that “it involves a fairly substantial investment in IT to make it work properly”.

But while this IT investment may involve an initial cost, firms will eventually reduce costs by reducing the size of their offices, with less staff needing to use them.

As well as home working, Beachcroft offers flexible working in the office or more traditional part-time hours.

Contrary to many other firms, at Beachcroft flexible working is mainly taken up by junior lawyers, rather than partners.

Hodgson believes the reason for this is that less senior lawyers had requested it, probably because of an ingrained culture of long hours in the office.

“The more senior lawyers are more dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. There are cultural issues that we’ll need to change,” he says. “The benefit of lawyers’ work is that their time is recorded, so it doesn’t matter if they’re in the next office or they’re at home. If you place your trust in them then theyWhich law firms offer Flexible working?

CASE STUDIES

Lucy Griffiths, Eversheds
Eversheds Cardiff-based corporate and projects solicitor Lucy Griffiths has had a number of different flexible working arrangements over the past two years.

Griffiths first decided to ask for flexible working conditions in June 2005, when she returned to work after the birth of her first child. She initially elected to work three days per week, but after five months decided to work four days.

Griffiths had her second child in June last year and, after taking six months of maternity leave, returned to work for four days per week.

Griffiths and her family then moved two hours away from Cardiff to get family support for their two young children. To enable this Eversheds allowed Griffiths to work part of the week from home.

She now works three days per week from home and spends one day per week in the Cardiff office.

Her supervisor also worked flexible hours before her children went to school and Griffiths says her support has been invaluable.

“She had faith in my manner of work and that I’d be committed,” she says. “There’s a trust element involved.

“My number of billable hours is as good as it was when I was full time in the office.”

Caitlin Jenkins, Mills & Reeve
Mills & Reeve family law partner Caitlin Jenkins has worked flexibly for seven years.

She joined the firm’s Cambridge office four years ago, but worked flexible hours at another firm for three years before that.

Jenkins now works four days per week and, while she works the same number of hours each day, the number of hours she works in the office varies.

Her flexible working has certainly not affected her career progression at Mills & Reeve, but she says she is not sure the same applies at all firms.

She started at the firm as a solicitor, was made an associate around one year later and in June was made a partner.

“What I’d say to anyone who’s contemplating asking for flexible work is to make sure that it’s supported at your firm, not just tolerated,” she says. “I feel very supported.”