Law firm: how we made flexible working work

Traditionally, the legal sector has been known for long hours and high workloads

Despite a raft of legislation supporting employees to request flexible working, some employers are still reluctant to look at new ways of working. Janvi Patel from law firm Halebury shows how her company has bucked the trend in a traditional sector.

It has been more than a year since the law was changed on the right to request flexible working, so that all employees – whether or not they have caring responsibilities – can make an application.

Yet the results of the recent Flexible Jobs Index from TimeWise show that for some employers, flexibility is still clearly a taboo subject.

This index was the first to analyse whether or not flexibility is an option at the point of recruitment, and found that more than half of applicants feel nervous asking for flexibility if a job advertisement does not specifically mention it. Only 6.2% of all jobs actually advertised flexible options.

It is not just at recruitment stage, either. According to YouGov research, 42% of employees would feel uncomfortable asking their bosses to let them work flexibly.

Moving forward

One of the industries where flexible working is arguably viewed with the most suspicion is mine – the legal sector.

My business partner Denise Nurse and I set up Halebury in 2007 as an answer for legal professionals – clients and lawyers – who were seeking more flexibility and better pricing at the top of their profession.

This included mothers requiring more flexibility to spend time with their children, and partners needing to care for relatives. Our business model is in stark contrast to many traditional legal practices, where a long-hours culture still prevails.

Having families ourselves, we saw the benefits of creating a business based on a flexible working model for both employees and employers. We wanted to provide highly experienced in-house lawyers on a flexible and affordable basis and, at the same time, give our team a credible alternative career path, which ensured greater rewards for their efforts.

Making it work

Eight years on, all of our legal team work flexibly; whether they work full days partly or all from home, part days for clients on-site or even working flat out for several months and then having time off before their next project.

It is up to them how they want to work and how often, and we resource work accordingly.

More than half of our team are working mothers who might otherwise have been unable to work at the same level in a traditional legal practice, while 32% of our legal team are men who are also looking for more flexible ways of working.

Two intrinsically linked characteristics underpin this model: trust and accountability.

First, every lawyer is required to prepare a business plan that sets out their career goals, from what their remuneration aims are, to which contacts or clients they would like to work with.

The management team, led by our head of business development and marketing, then works with each lawyer to help them achieve that plan. It means that each business development and marketing strategy is unique and tailored to fit their experience, sector and even location.

Measuring success

By doing this, however, we had to turn on its head the way we measured success. Rather than looking at hours on the clock, we now evaluate outputs.

We were fortunate because a number of forward-thinking clients saw the benefit of the flexible resource at the senior end of the market and they gave us the opportunity to work with them.

But what they quickly realised is that flexible working is not an easy way out. It takes a great deal of resourcing to make sure that the team can move from project to project and a certain skillset from the team to pick up projects at short notice and to be able to hit the ground running.

In addition, it takes a large amount of management time to make sure that the team has been effectively allocated on a project so that they can meet their clients’ demands; flexible working takes management, but a large part of that is just logistics.

Staff satisfaction

As a result of being able to dictate their own hours, our lawyers are happier, more motivated and therefore far more productive. They are able to spend time with their families, fulfilling other goals, or simply taking some much needed downtime.

That said, just as it takes a certain type of business to embrace flexible working, so too does it take a certain type of individual to make agile working work, and this has affected how we recruit.

The individuals we hire do not need to be micro-managed but are instead self-starters. Aligning remuneration with outputs rather than the hours they have worked requires individuals who are disciplined, organised and highly motivated.

Last, and perhaps most important, flexible workers must understand that flexibility works both ways.

If the workload is particularly heavy, a flexible employee will have no problem in “flexing up” to get the work completed. Our lawyers work on this basis and will often invest a lot of upfront time in person with a client at the beginning of a project to ensure they are properly embedded into the business.

As we have found, flexible working is beneficial for businesses and employees alike, even in sectors where long hours are entrenched. For us, the client gets a more efficient service and the employee is happier.

Now is the time for employers to be brave, to seize the opportunity and embrace the future model of working.

Janvi Patel

About Janvi Patel

Janvi Patel is chairwoman and co-founder of legal consultancy Halebury.
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