Is flexible working a waste of time?

Richard Tyler looks at how some visionary firms are aiming to retain top staff by letting them work from home. Long hours and the legal profession go together like paracetamol and a hangover – one naturally follows the other.

But for some lawyers this is a bitter pill to swallow. For them, a successful legal career would be one that allows time for life outside of the office.

Last month, Simmons & Simmons lost its head of tax, Heather Savage, to Linklaters after that firm offered her a flexible working week. She now spends three days of the week in the office and the rest of it working from home.

Hers is not an isolated case. Increasingly, firms have to accommodate requests for non-standard hours or face the prospect of losing a star performer to a rival.

But London-based behavioural consultancy firm Alexander has identified several barriers to such progressive working practices within firms, including:

a focus on billing at the expense of learning;

longer working hours affecting sustained performance;

failure of partners to see a need for people development;

time pressures; and

geographic dispersement.

According to Alexander's Michael Manwaring, strategic consultants such as McKinsey & Co are way ahead of law firms when it comes to setting up policies aimed at getting the best out of valued staff.

And with McKinseys sitting near the top of the Financial Times list of preferred employers, a connection could be made between flexible working policies and the ability to attract and keep stars.

Linklaters was one of the first large City firms to realise the benefits of flexible working. After 18 months of consultation with partners and clients, it launched a flexitime policy, for partners only, in May 1997. A year-and-a-half later, Linklaters has Savage and four other female partners on the scheme.

For years the firm had suffered the continued departure of female senior lawyers who felt they could more comfortably juggle a legal career and a family if they moved out of City-type practice or out of private practice altogether.

“At Linklaters for the last 10 years at least half of the intake have been women,” says litigation partner Diana Good, who sat on the firm's management committee at the time of the consultation.

“Although we had a huge number of highly able women lawyers working for the firm, there were still few women partners. We wanted to retain the best people long-term and we needed to do something.”

The crunch time comes for female lawyers when they become eligible for partnership. Many decide that the extra responsibilities (and hours) cannot be balanced with a serious family commitment.

Some do manage to combine both spheres. Good has four children and still works full-time. But she argues that firms should accommodate lawyers who want to concentrate primarily on their children for a few years.

The Linklaters flexitime policy is not an enshrined right. Partners must put forward a specific proposal showing that clients will not suffer.

And flexibility has to come from the individual as well as the firm. Where a transaction takes a week or more to complete, days away from the office may have to be built up and taken in one block. If a client wants advice on a solicitor's “day off”, then the day off must be taken later.

The five female partners working flexible hours at Linklaters hold positions in areas ranging from corporate law to intellectual property and international finance.

Good says her firm is examining whether the policy for partners can be extended to assistants – although she believes there is less demand from junior lawyers who, she says, tend to put off having a family until their thirties.

Other firms are following Linklaters' lead. Wilde Sapte set up a pilot scheme earlier this year to examine how technology could be used to help the firm introduce a formal flexible working policy.

Wilde Sapte IT director Simon Kosminsky is responsible for collating feedback from the scheme. He says the pilot was initially driven by partner interest in e-mail and other office-based resources when they were travelling or at home. But this developed into a wider examination of how the firm could accommodate requests for flexibility.

“There are potential advantages for both sides,” says Kosminsky. “The figures show productivity increases and the more flexible our policies, the longer people stay – which reduces recruitment costs.”

National firm Hammond Suddards is also looking seriously at flexible working. A four-person team – including an employment partner, the head of the firm's EU law unit and two personnel managers – is in the early stages of a gender review.

According to Craig Wright, personnel manager at the firm's Leeds office, almost all requests for non-standard hours are from female lawyers. He says his firm is keeping an eye on developments in domestic legislation that could soon force firms to put formal policies in place (such as that resulting from adoption of the EU Social Chapter). “We are trying to get ahead of the game,” he says.

Wright believes flexible work is a growing trend which all firms will have to face up to. But he says it is a delicate issue and both the firm and the individual will suffer if it is handled badly.

Some of the early conclusions from Wilde Sapte's scheme show that while motivation and productivity are not issues for partners working from home or part-time, this is not the case for assistants or support staff. Hammond Suddards already has fears of opening a floodgate of staff asking for non-standard hours. “Where do you draw the line?” asks Wright.

The bottom line is that the client must not suffer. Leslie Perrin, managing partner at Osborne Clarke, speaks for many when he says: “If the client is going to notice then it can't be done.”

Perrin says any managing partner would report greater pressure for flexibility. At Osborne Clarke, he says, five assistants have decided not to go for partnership for family and lifestyle reasons – and the firm gets a lot of requests for non-standard hours which it turns down. “Occasionally, we can't keep people that otherwise we would have liked to keep,” he admits.

Perrin concedes that his firm has become more flexible and does accommodate some part-time and home working, but insists “we are not suckers for it”.

“Teleworking is a massive myth,” he adds. “In the modern law firm, teamwork is everything.” And for Perrin, that involves coming into the office to interact with colleagues.

But with the law itself challenging employee-employer relations – through the 48-hour week, maternal and paternal leave, and other workplace issues – those firms confronting the issue now will be best prepared to offer greater flexibility in the future without sacrificing productivity or client service.