Improved productivity is one of the benefits flexible working can deliver, but it does not happen without a change in the culture of work.
Stifle your sighs. ‘Not another article on flexible working,’ I hear you cry. And it’s a fair reaction – flexible working has been discussed, pondered over and written about numerous times in the last few years. The rise of the gig economy and companies like Uber has furthered the conversation (as have the court battles over employment status). But it’s certainly here to stay – according to a recent study from Lancaster University, a huge 70% of UK companies will have embraced flexible working by 2020.
But what’s the reality of this flexible working revolution? Over the last few years, many law firms have introduced flexible working policies. For instance, at Pinsent Masons take-up of these policies has been encouraged and adopted by a significant proportion of partners and lawyers at all levels across its international offices. But, to make sure that flexible is this successful across all firms, it’s important that individuals take it upon themselves to make sure they’re actively embracing these policies to show their firms there is demand for them. Or, if the right policy isn’t already in place, it’s vital that individuals speak up to let their firms know that strong demand for flexible working exists in the first place. Of course, this might be difficult in some firms where the culture isn’t traditionally flexible or forward-thinking, but more and more firms are making the effort to move away from a culture of presenteeism and long hours.
Often though, in all the discourse around flexible working, the real reasons why this way of working is of benefit can be lost.
Flexible working is hugely important for a number of reasons. First, it helps level the playing field in terms of gender diversity in the sector. We’re still living in a time when women are under-represented in the legal profession at a senior level. Only 17% of partners in the top 25 law firms are women, according to a survey from PwC in 2015. This is particularly shocking given that women make up the majority of solicitors at a junior level – according to the Law Society, 61% of qualified solicitors admitted in 2015 were female.
Of course, the lack of gender diversity in the legal profession at a senior level has been recognised and there are a number of great initiatives in place across the industry to support female talent. For example, at Pinsent Masons, the Project Sky initiative has seen the firm already surpass its target for 25% female partners by 2018 and is now moving towards 30% by 2020.
However, not all initiatives have been embraced as enthusiastically by all employers – just recently, Margot James, the business minister, warned that some employers are discriminating against fathers at work by refusing requests for flexible hours, forcing mothers to do more childcare. She stated that many employers are unsure of their legal obligations towards fathers and that shared parental leave is also under-utilised, with less than 10% of new dads using the policy. Agile working and freelance lawyering are becoming popular options for those needing to balance family commitments with a career in legal services.
Another significant reason why the legal profession should fully embrace flexible working is the extra productivity it can bring. YouGov research has revealed almost a third of UK office staff reported an increase in productivity when working remotely. Many high-profile figures in the business world have also waxed lyrical over the benefits of flexible working. Richard Branson has said in the past, ‘We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they [are] at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.’
Of course, in the legal profession there are some very practical reasons why flexible working can be an issue – for a lawyer working on a big deal, it is usually very important for them to be in situ, working closely with their team. But, with more and more firms offering flexible working, it is also vital that lawyers help open up the conversation and ask for flexible working – it’s definitely a two-way street and embracing these new policies help ensure a firm isn’t just paying lip service to the new working revolution.
A culture change is needed, but we are starting to see more of the right policies and measures in place to allow lawyers to work flexibly – from shared parental leave to the option of working as a freelance lawyer, which is becoming more and more accepted as an alternative to a traditional legal career path. As a sector, we’re moving in the right direction, but it’s also down to individuals to help move the conversation along and take advantage of these policies when they’re offered - perhaps something to consider as a New Year’s resolution for 2018?
Matthew Kay is director at Vario, legal resourcing hub at international law firm Pinsent Masons