Agile working in traditional law firms – not what it says on the tin but a good first step

I read with sadness but no great surprise that four out of 10 senior associates would not choose to become a lawyer again, according to The Lawyer’s Salary Survey 2016. The high stress, long hours, culture of working in a traditional firm is quite clearly not something enjoyed by 40% of the senior lawyers questioned. My guess is the number of lawyers who regret the career choice is actually much higher.  

Which is why perhaps “agile working” are the buzz words of the moment within the legal industry, with a number of firms now allowing their staff members to work from home, in  most cases for a limited period of time each month. 

It is without question a good first step within the traditional legal market towards a better way of working for lawyers. Anything that helps ease the intense pressure felt by those working in law firms should be welcomed.  But be under no illusions, being given the option to work from home a set number of days does not agile working make. This is introducing an element of flexibility, nothing more.  

So why are law firms doing it and can this added flexibility ever evolve into true agile working?

Preventing an exodus of staff is what is driving these new initiatives. All law firms know that attracting and then retaining the brightest and best lawyers is possibly the greatest challenge they face. And across the working landscape things are changing, employees now expect more: a life that offers greater rewards, and not just financial ones. Work-life balance is a very real expectation, and that expectation will only grow as the millennials and those that follow gain traction within the workplace. More and more lawyers are leaving traditional practices for consultancy roles – more on that later – and traditional firms are having to adapt in order to hold on to their lawyers.

Agility implies freedom, but these schemes aren’t really promoting that. You can work at home one day a week.” “You can work from home one day a fortnight.” Just two of the offers I have heard made to staff at top 100 firms. Well let me ask you this, if a firm really believed in the idea, why limit it at all? If firms really thought their lawyers could still deliver outside the office environment, why not let the lawyers decide how many days they spend at home? Afterall, isn’t it just a numbers game? If you are still billing at the same level, why does it matter where you are?

The answer is, I’m afraid, a practical one. Traditional law firms know they can’t fully embrace agile working because they face a major issue: their structure. The way a traditional law firm works means it simply wouldn’t be viable in most cases for a lawyer to work remotely for any extended period of time. Anyone in senior positions is likely to be directly managing a number of staff including secretaries and paralegals. How can they do that from their home office?

Developments in technology will certainly help address this issue, but traditional firms will still need to fundamentally shift how law services are delivered if they are to allow their lawyers to have true agility.  Lawyers need to be freed up to focus on their clients with others worrying about managing the support team. Which, by the way, is how Setfords works.

I believe if you truly want to be an agile worker you must be able to take control of your own career and that means working to your agenda, not someone else’s. I’m not just talking about dictating your own hours or where you work either, I’m talking about having control over your billing. We don’t have targets at Setfords because we honestly believe our lawyers know best about how to deliver the best service to their clients. We don’t want them worrying about our bottom line. We want them worrying about the people who are paying them for a legal service. We are smart enough to realise that if you deliver for your clients, not only are you more likely to get repeat business, those same clients are more likely to recommend you to others. That’s how you grow a truly successful business.

Agile working isn’t about the number of days you are allowed to spend at home – it’s so much more than that. 40% of lawyers surveyed said they would have chosen another career. In other words they regret their decision. My guess is none of those surveyed worked as consultant lawyers. Their only regret, is that they didn’t do it sooner.

Chris Setford
CEO, Setfords Solicitors

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