Recent developments in the work-life interface and the growing emphasis on employee wellbeing have both been a catalyst for many law firms to introduce agile working policies.
Early pioneers such Bates Wells, Hogan Lovells and Pinsent Masons have had agile work policies for several years encouraging lawyers to work from home regularly, as well as from different locations.
More recently, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, law firms are increasingly evaluating how to be more flexible in terms of location and time as well as reducing their office spaces. Linklaters recently announced their agile work policy prioritising remote working.
Although the idea of having a Google-esque approach to work within law firms is attractive, it’s important to create robust agile work policies that are both suitable and accommodating for a diverse staff base and benefit business in tandem.
As part of my PhD research, I reviewed a number of flexible working policies which had been introduced across the legal profession. Through interviews, lawyers elaborated on the policies introduced by their employers and discussed their shortcomings.
Frequently we see the discussion on agile working policies cover the benefits of their introduction, however, as we will now inevitably see an increase in agile working across the sector, it’s of importance to explore some of the flaws of these policies so senior leaders make changes to develop full-bodied policies which support all of their employees.
As part of the research lawyers working in large, medium and small-sized law firms were interviewed.
Within large firms particularly, the ability to work flexibly was highly dependent upon seniority. Although these policies are intended to be available to all lawyers within firms, research findings show that senior lawyers have more scope to negotiate flexibility.
Interview participants thought that junior and mid-level lawyers may need more direct supervision and may have a greater need to build internal social networks making them less likely to uptake agile working opportunities and spend time out of the office.
While it is understandable the junior lawyers may indeed need more supervision or training, firms should find means of how to provide this virtually.
The pandemic has made firms think of introducing hybrid learning models utilising technology, but it is of increasing importance if the ability to work flexibly is dependent on the level of training and supervision received.
Findings show that multi-jurisdictional teams excelled in using a variety of technological tools that enable effective supervision and training. The research also shows that small and medium firms have a more robust communication structure that facilitated virtual training and communication across all levels.
Firm wide agile working policies should be available to everyone, yet findings show that it is more difficult for transactional lawyers to work flexibly in comparison to dispute resolution lawyers.
Lawyers who undertake an advisory role have the greatest degree of flexibility, therefore there is a clear split of who can benefit from these policies based on the content of their role.
Although market forces, client demands and the nature of the role often influence how and where work needs to be completed, law firms need to be mindful of this when designing agile work policies.
It would be impossible to create a policy for each department, but firms can train managers and leaders on how this policy is meant to be used as well as how specific departments can make the best use of it with their team’s individualised demands in mind.
For agile work policies to have the greatest chance at success, firms need to ensure that their technology is up to date and available to everyone – lawyers as well as business services. Research shows that agile work policies work best within firms that ensure employees have all the necessary means and training to complete their job effectively.
It is imperative that software and systems are aligned and accessible so that working from home, or a different office, is not difficult. Employers should also consider whether they offer additional equipment such as monitors, printers, keyboards as well as carry out desk assessments.
All employees should be equipped with a laptop and a mobile phone. Adequate training should also be provided to teach employees how to troubleshoot minor problems and how to navigate through the equipment effectively and with minimal effort.
When discussing agile work policies, particularly within global law firms or law firms who have multiple offices within the UK, it is important to talk about organisational justice.
As research participants were located across the UK, as well as abroad, a variety of perspectives around justice were provided. Overall it was strongly believed that employees within regional officers had more scope to negotiate agile working in comparison to their colleagues working in head offices or offices abroad.
Although firms often roll out one single agile work policy for all employees collectively, it is often interpreted, and implemented, differently across different offices. This raises a question around justice.
To ensure that feelings of inequity, favouritism or preferential treatment do not arise, it is integral for senior management to monitor the uptake of this agile work policy across offices and to examine those offices with little or no uptake and review how this can be shifted.
When imagining the future of the legal profession, agile working is a vital, necessary component.
For this to work successfully, law firms must prioritise technology – making sure it is up to date, accessible and staff know how to use it.
Most importantly leadership must take responsibility for the effectiveness of the policy, allowing it to be flexible when needed and, above all, that it is inclusive of all employees, all locations and all characteristics.
If you would like to receive a copy of the findings, or more information about my research, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Milena Tekeste is a flexible work consultant and Doctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway University