In January this year, a ‘You Work’ survey reported that 34 per cent of executives now work at least part of the time at home. Respondents to the survey cited email technology and generally woeful public transport systems as key factors in making home working an attractive option.
It would probably be fair to say that the legal profession has been reluctant to embrace part-time work. Home working has rather unfairly been tarred with the same brush. The traditional attitude has been all or nothing – you’re either in or out. As much as anything, this is driven by client demand. A client who has spent a lifetime building his company does not want to hear that his solicitor will be unavailable for the next couple of days when the deal is costing £300 per hour.
But what are the options for those solicitors keen to utilise years of great experience, but keener still to see their children grow up?
Setting up on one’s own appeals to some. Nowadays it is quite feasible to operate as a sole practitioner from home and thereby avoid the expense of a separate office and secretary. But even if you are lucky enough to have enough clients, by the time you pay for Law Society fees, your practising certificate, professional indemnity insurance, client account auditing and somewhere to meet the client, the expression ‘running to stand still’ starts to take on significance.
In-house options are a little more forgiving than conventional private practice, and nowadays some blue-chips such as BT allow a significant proportion of their legal team to work from home. Smaller companies often keep fixed costs down by employing their in-house lawyer for just two or three days a week with ready availability from home outside these times.
One thing is for sure: with today’s communications it is inevitable that home working within the legal profession will increase significantly over the next few years. Other than the strong demand from solicitors for this type of work, there are two major factors driving change.
First, the UK is actually quite entrepreneurial these days and there are more small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) than ever before looking for creative ways to minimise overheads. Quality freelance lawyers who can provide a personalised service at an unbeatable rate present few difficult choices to the average SME.
Second, while law firms have been reluctant to have their own employees working part time, they are increasingly prepared to draw upon the skills of consultant lawyers for specific projects; this is often the case when they need expertise in a particular niche area. By drawing upon a flexible workforce, law firms now realise they can keep a handle on fixed costs while performing competently a wider range of instructions and making a very good profit. That is a good position to be in.
Business culture is changing very quickly. People are actively seeking new and interesting ways to earn a living, while ‘fixed costs’ are starting to sound like dirty words. The legal industry may not lead this cultural revolution, but it is not too far behind.
James Knight is managing partner of Lawyers Direct