Law firms accept flexible working arrangements reluctantly and requests to work flexibly are made with the expectation that the arrangement will be poorly supported and will damage a lawyer’s career, a study of lawyers working at larger firms has concluded.

Of the lawyers involved in the study, 88% would like to see law firms become more accommodating to flexible working relationships, while 66% believe that their non-lawyer contacts have more flexible arrangements in the workplace than lawyers.

By a ratio of more than 3:1, lawyers believe that taking up flexible working arrangements ‘could potentially affect career progression in the future’. One typical comment ran: ‘It has been hard to get the same quality of work since going part-time.’

It is commonly supposed that inadequate support from business development functions could affect the quality of instructions lawyers attract. Poor project management was also raised as a factor affecting the ability of lawyers working flexible hours or from a flexible location to secure high-quality work.

The study identified ‘the need to be tied to an office environment’ as a low priority, concluding that the tie to the office was important only in so far as it affected job security, rewards or quality of work.

Jude Fletcher (pictured), senior partner of law firm Fletcher Day, which commissioned the study, said: ‘To overcome the widespread perception that flexible working can potentially lead to career disadvantages, we’ve concluded that law firms need to set out a meaningful promise – a “flexible working covenant”.’ They should include promises on project management, IT support, job security and fair treatment on quality of work, he added.  

Just over a fifth (21%) of those taking part had made a flexible working request in the previous 12 months, with 95% working in law firms with a headcount of 100-plus lawyers, including magic circle, silver circle and national firms.