There is a common perception that only female solicitors with young children want flexible working arrangements. But increasingly men are also single parents or carers, or experience short-term crises which make it difficult to work ‘normal’ office hours. Solicitors of both genders want to expand other facets of their lives. In fact, in one firm, the most common reason given by staff asking for non-standard arrangements is to spend time with their horses.
Popular mythology suggests that enabling their solicitors to work flexibly can never be to the advantage of their firms. In fact, there can be financial benefits. One leading legal recruitment agency famously stated that the cost of recruiting a well-qualified solicitor can be as high as £300,000. This includes not just direct recruitment costs, but also the too-often-ignored intangible costs of lost work and bedding down the new solicitor. And the subsequent loyalty of a solicitor who is enabled to carry on practising in a job that they value should not be underestimated. After all, flexible working is not necessarily forever.
As Howard Taylor, senior legal counsel at Shell, points out, substantial savings can be made in the cost of office space. Accountants have practised hotdesking for years and there does not seem to have been a notable drag on their profits.
Some firms have recognised that working flexibly assists senior lawyers in the run-up to normal retirement age and beyond; and it not only assists senior lawyers to make the difficult transition away from the long-hours culture, but also gives the firm access to their wisdom and experience for longer.
But can it work for younger partners? Simmons & Simmons seems to think so, because at any one time over the past 10 years between one and four equity partners have been working flexibly.
David Hunter, commercial partner at Bevan Brittan, manages his team on the basis of a “notional” four-day week. Even if in reality he often works five days a week instead of six, he values the benefit to him and his family of a “most of the time” two-day weekend. The organisation and determination required to make this work are surely qualities that any right-minded firm should value.
The argument that clients want five-day (and more) access to the same lawyer simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Companies such as Shell, which operate across international boundaries, and which itself employs in-house lawyers working flexibly, considers that it is the soundness of the advice which counts rather than which solicitor gives it.
Alison Parkinson, head of legal services, property at Network Rail, agrees. “I’ve never heard any adverse comments from colleagues about using external lawyers who work flexibly,” she says.
The situation for each individual is different. Some firms have drafted idealistic policies that do not translate into practice, but others such as Simmons have developed a clearly signposted request procedure, which requires individuals to consider how they can make the arrangements work for the firm.
The vast increase in legal IT investment over the past few years has made it potentially simpler for solicitors to work out new methods of working flexibly. This includes online dictation functions, access to the office intranet and access to online information sources, including the firm’s internal knowhow systems.
The reality is that it is not too difficult. But it does need creative thinking and flexibility on the part of both firms and individual solicitors.
Elizabeth Cruickshank is the immediate past chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors and the author of Women in the Law