In changing times does the traditional legal practice still fit the needs of a diversifying workforce?

We are frequently advised by our clients that succession planning is becoming more difficult, as fewer fee earners have the desire to become equity partners. They also comment that younger employees are likely to hop between employers as they chase rapid career progression.

So what has changed for employees?

Historically, men have dominated the legal world but, over time, there has been a significant shift in the number of females entering the profession. The Law Society of England and Wales reported that 50% of those holding practising certificates are female and 48% of solicitors working in private practice are women. These numbers are sure to increase further as 70% of UK law students accepted on to courses are female. Factor in that the majority of those newly qualified lawyers will also be millennials who come with their own generational expectations of what they are looking for in an employer, and we may come close to understanding the shift in mindset of those now working in and entering the profession.

The creative industries have set a trend of flexible and agile working styles with employees choosing when and where they work (to varying degrees). The traditional professions have been slow to adopt this working style, if at all, with the majority of law firms continuing to provide a 'business hours' working environment which can be restrictive for those who require more flexibility.

It is true that some firms have introduced an element of flexibility to meet the needs of their clientele. Opening earlier and closing later or having a specified day where they are open later hours. Some have even introduced opening on Saturday, mainly mornings, but some see this now as a working day.

However, what about their employees? With many employees struggling with the work/life balance, a lack of flexibility can lead to key talent withdrawing from not only the firm they work for, but also the law profession entirely. Can a firm afford the possibility of losing up to 50% of their work force at one time or another?  Or is the way forward to evolve alongside other industries? 

Henley Business School recently produced a study that shows that one in four workers (mainly millennials) now have a second job or business, a term that has been coined as a 'side hustle' and is often a creative outlet. It would seem that times really are changing so how much should a firm look to embrace the needs of the future partners of tomorrow?

A metamorphosis into a 'next generation' style law firm may be unpalatable for some firms and, perhaps, would not fit with their philosophies and company culture. However, there are varying degrees of flexibility, which could be adopted and better accommodate not only those fee earners with disabilities, families or who are carers, but also all fee earners.

What are the benefits?

Increase in Productivity - Studies have shown that flexible working often leads to an increase in productivity. When people are trusted to manage their own time, they often work more effectively.

Quality over Quantity - As a nation we are working longer hours but how effectively are we working? The focus should be on the quality of the work produced rather than the number of hours spent in the office. When people are feeling under pressure they are likely to work longer hours to meet deadlines. Working longer leads to tiredness and reduced concentration which increases the likelihood mistakes being made. This can be costly for you, your insurer and the profession as a whole.

Widen the Talent Pool – A diverse company structure is likely to attract key talent from a wider range of personalities which is vital in ensuring that you are continuing to be a company that people want to work for and also do business with. People like dealing with those they can identify with so it is important to set yourself out as a practice the best talent wants to work for.

Loyalty – By showing that you trust your employees to produce high quality work when outside of the office, you are empowering them and encouraging loyalty to the firm. People invest when they feel invested in.

How Can you Risk Manage a Flexible Work Environment?

Increased use of reliance on technology has its own risks but means that we are more accessible. A benefit of such advancements should be providing greater flexibility. As such, you could have a happy team; this may also increase the potentially available talent pool and make your practice more attractive to new associates.

However, it is important to evaluate the risks associated with providing such flexibility. Phone calls need to be answered, client's queries dealt with appropriately and swiftly. You may need to consider how confidentiality can be preserved when people work outside the office. Are they able to take files? If so, where do they keep them and how do they secure them at home? If people are working on trains or in coffee shops, do you recommend that they avoid calls until they are in a place where they cannot be overheard? Consider whether you should provide privacy screens for laptops.

Continue to Supervise – Fewer hours in the office should not equal reduced supervision of an individual. Managers should continue to review fee earner files and regular audits conducted on all members of staff regardless of their seniority in the practice.

Communicate – You also do not want flexibility to impact on your culture; lose the regular peer discussion that happens when you are working alongside one another as your employees collegiately work with one another. Striking the right balance is key. If a fee earner works from home one day a week ensure that their manager calls them at home to touch base and run through any queries they may have. Encourage their team to call and email them with queries and advice. Remote working does not mean that a person should be communicated with less. It is important to ensure that no one becomes isolated.

Team Meetings – These are very important in making sure knowledge is shared, particularly when there are developments in the law or difficult issues arise. The team does not have to be in the same location to hold these, but they should regularly occur and be a platform when where ideas are shared, problems discussed and appropriate solutions found for your clients.

Effective Systems – Ensure that your practice uses effective computer software so that progress of work, deadlines and communications are visible to others.

Bring Your Own Device – Working outside of the office can lead to an increased cyber risk. Ensure that all staff are aware of the following:

  • All devices used must be protected with strong passwords using letters, numbers and characters.
  • Files must be encrypted to protect client data and also sensitive information about the firm
  • All work and communications should be transacted through the company computer systems and nothing saved or sent on personal devices. This prevents a third party accessing sensitive information in the event that a device is lost or stolen.
  • If working outside of the office or home be careful of using public wifi as this is generally not very secure and can be hacked into easily. Once a hacker has broken through, they will have full access to your system and data.

 

Fundamentally, your duty to your clients comes first as does protecting practice in terms of quality of work and your reputation. However, it is possible to balance quality with flexibility to ensure that you continue to attract and retain key talent that could be lost unnecessarily save for some accommodating adjustments to the traditional structure so many law firms still provide. Perhaps by evolving in line with other industries, fee earners may see a longer-term future in a practice where they didn't before.