Flexible Work – more than just an issue of being family friendly

This being Parenting Week, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have refreshed their calls to make workplace legislation more family friendly. But law firms need to think beyond working mums and dads in crafting flexible working policies.

The case for flexible work in the legal industry usually centres on working mothers.  Why is flexible work so often seen as a female issue? A Massachusetts study found that most male lawyers are coupled with women holding little or no household financial responsibility, with less career commitment and with primary family responsibilities.  In contrast, female lawyers are more likely to be coupled with men with an equal or greater responsibility for career and income and who do not assume primary caretaking responsibilities.  Faced with competing demands from work and family, female lawyers are more likely to leave or seek more flexible work.

However, socio-cultural shifts are impacting the legal industry no less than others. The number of men working flexi-time has more than doubled in the last decade.   40% of fathers now say they spend too little time with their children[1] and two-thirds of fathers see flexible work as an important benefit when looking for a new job[2]

But increasingly flexible work is not just about balancing family commitments.  Many of our candidates register with us because they want to balance other demands on their time. Whatever the reason, all feel strongly that their legal talent is no less diminished by their desire to work less than 60 hours a week.  

Research by PWC in 2010 showed that flexible work is the benefit most valued by employees (47% as compared with pay and bonus that came second with just 19%).  Law firms that are serious about talent management should  pay attention to recent research in US law firms indicating  that although 93% of respondents (male and female) looked favourably on employers that allow flexible work (even if they themselves did not intend to use it) the majority believed that working flexibly would be career limiting.

Interestingly our experience at Lexington Gray is that when lawyers (male and female) decide flexibility becomes important, they would rather find a new job with an employer with an established flexible work policy than ask their existing employer to accommodate their needs[3]

Employers that ignore flexible working are shooting themselves in the foot in terms of attracting and retaining the best talent and, in a knowledge industry, this will have an impact in the service that they provide to their clients. 

So what does a lack of flexibility cost law firms? One US study conservatively put the cost of replacing a second year associate at $200,000.00.  Clients also increasingly demand greater diversity from law firms.  In 2006 Wal-Mart discontinued work with two law firms citing the firms’ lack of diversity as reason.  A high ‘churn rate’ comes with a high price tag.

Few working professionals feel ‘time pressure’ as acutely as lawyers.  Billable hours and daily timesheets are a constant reminder that the business of law is all about time.  However it is precisely this focus on time, rather than product, that lends the industry to flexible working.  Giant leaps in technology over the last decade mean client service can be delivered without being tied to a desk.

Organisations that offer flexible work almost always claim benefits to the business – increased employee commitment and productivity, reductions in staff turnover and training costs and a greater ability to respond to customer requirements are common feedback.

And what’s the alternative?  The combination of an ageing workforce and a more skill-dependent economy means businesses will have to make better use of their working populations.  More than 90% of companies in Germany and Sweden allow flexible work and recent research from Regus indicates that 85% of US businesses are following suit. 

In America, families with a stay at home parent have the same inflation-adjusted income as similar families did in the early 1970s.  British families face similar issues.  We know that Gen-Xers want a balanced life and they will also be saddled with dual family responsibilities – raising their own family while taking care of aging parents.   Flexible work is the future and firms that adapt now will be better placed to win the war for talent and clients in the future.

Fiona Severs, Lexington Gray


[1] Report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission

[2] Report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission

[3] This is also the finding of a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission