Long hours can lead to burnout, shortening careers and making for worse law. Yet legal firms remain resistant to the concept of a four-day week, despite evidence that working smarter can bring real benefits

Last week the campaign group 4 Day Week Global revealed the results of a six-month pilot programme, under which 61 employers signed up for their staff to work 80% of the time for 100% of the salary. The results were positive – not surprising, given the self-selecting sample – and suggest a real appetite for change.

But it was noticeable that no law firms could be persuaded to take part, and 4 Day Week Global admits that ‘cultural norms’ in the profession present bigger obstacles than in other sectors.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, director of 4 Day Week Global, told the Gazette: ‘I think there’s a widespread recognition that current legal practice burns people out unnecessarily, shortens the careers of people the profession would benefit from having, and makes for worse law, and needs to change.

‘Figuring out how to redesign legal practice, and managing the transition to more sustainable careers and practice, is the challenge.’

Sceptics can reel off a long list of problems with marrying a four-day week with the legal profession. Would clients accept their solicitor being off when they need them? How would a four-day week tally with the five-day courts and tribunals service? Would it apply only to senior staff and leave out support staff such as cleaners and receptionists whose services are needed every day? And, perhaps most importantly to some lawyers, what happens to the hallowed billable hour?

'By working smarter, our team are still able to achieve their overall objectives but in fewer hours and without any expectation that those hours “lost” will need to be made up elsewhere'

Laura Clapton, Consilia Legal

Laura Clapton, whose Leeds firm Consilia Legal allowed staff to start working four-day weeks a year ago, agrees that the culture of billable hours is one of the law’s biggest hindrances, but she stresses the barrier is not insuperable.

‘Our team are valued beyond simply their ability to charge for their time by the hour,’ she said. ‘Yes, they bill for their time in many cases, but they have realistic fee targets which enable them to fulfil other roles and responsibilities whether in the form of mentoring, training or business development.

‘By working smarter, our team are still able to achieve their overall objectives but in fewer hours and without any expectation that those hours “lost” will need to be made up elsewhere.’

JMK Solicitors, the largest personal injury practice in Northern Ireland, has to deal with courts and clients wanting speedy resolutions, but after three years it insists the move to four-day weeks has been a huge success.

Michelle Murphy, head of operations and HR at JMK, said the logistical challenges can be met with good organisation and cooperation. Courts are asked by lawyers to list on days when they are available and staff cannot all choose to take the same day off (in practice, there has been a roughly even split between people wanting a long weekend and others asking for Tuesday or Wednesday off to help with caring responsibilities). Clients are told by their solicitors in all correspondence which days they can be contacted, and satisfaction levels for consumers and staff have reached record highs.

Murphy admitted there have been challenges: annual leave entitlements were not adjusted at the time of the change, and have since been reduced in line with the 20% cut in working hours. But she said there is no chance that the four-day week will be reversed.

‘We’re more than three years in and still going strong,’ says Murphy. ‘It’s not perfect, but the big thing is being flexible about it and to have the team engaged. Colleagues are expected to pick up calls when others are off, but ultimately everyone benefits, and so you’re happy to do it.’

Of course if work needs to be done on a day off, it will be. Leena Yousefi, founder of Vancouver firm YLaw and an early adopter of a four-day week, said the biggest misconception was people thinking lawyers will never work on their days off, when in practice the firm’s lawyers will often do an hour or so if required.

‘As with any service industry, we constantly deal with

clients, are contracted out, deal with human emergencies, and many deadlines and events which are out of our control,’ she said. ‘In the legal industry, examples of the above are urgent court hearings, children being abducted, family emergencies.

‘When these emergencies come up, we are mandated to deal with them as per our law society rules. Yes, that means dropping everything to deal with them, including having to work on our day off – even on the weekends.’