NOT BENDY LAWYERS August 2017

By PAUL GILBERT, Published in Women in law

Flexible working is not a requirement for more bendy lawyers. In my view, however, it is the single biggest driver for change in the legal profession – greater than any tech innovation, greater than any disruptive influence from new legal services providers and far greater than changing the hourly rate charging model.

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Law firms and businesses employing lawyers in in-house legal teams must either embrace flexible working practices or see their talent pool dry up and disappear.

Ten years ago, to consider flexible working was like expecting a vegan option in a steak-house. It was tolerated by a few (barely tolerated that is) and often resented by colleagues. Those who asked for flexible working were often marked out as lacking ambition and possibly not even wanting to make a full contribution. Those granted flexible working would often feel excluded, marginalised and treated as second-class employees.

The world, thankfully, has moved on. Now many companies encourage home-working and even expect home working for at least some of the time. Many companies are also far more responsive to requests for compressed hours (for example typically a nine-day fortnight, but still working 10 days of hours) traditional part-time working and even genuinely flexible hours so that people work to demand, not to set hours a day/week.

This has obvious advantage to employees and employers; for example:

  • Reduced fixed office costs;
  • Scaling up to peak demand, scaling back when less busy;
  • A better balance for family time;
  • A focus on contribution, not hours present;
  • A more grown-up assessment of what work is and how loyalty is earned not demanded.

This is all very well, and accurate, but why do I make my claim of legal services revolution? Surely this just highlights a sense of administrative convenience. In my judgement, not so, and there are three compelling reasons why I believe this is nothing short of a revolution.

First, it has been clear for many years that more than 50% of newly qualified lawyers are women. Yet it is palpably clear that far, far less than 50% of women hold the most senior roles in the profession. Whatever the complex web of personal circumstances for each individual lawyer, my belief is that the alpha-male behavioural matrix of the long hours, all consuming and hard work/hard play culture has a devastating attritional impact on talent and that women suffer most in these environments. Genuinely adopting flexible working with male and female role models exemplifying the leadership, credibility and success of this way of working is bound to have a long term impact on talent retention. It will be the single biggest contributor to equalising the opportunities for the talent pool and ultimately ensuring a true meritocracy between men and women in leadership roles.

Second, it is forcing lawyers to think far more about personal purpose and contribution, and far less about working long hours as if that was an indicator of competence or usefulness. The cultural DNA of a lawyer (beaten into them from their very first day) is to record time. The requirement is to record as much time as possible, all of the time. Time recorded is the raw material of billing and profitability (and therefore of your value to the firm). However, when hours are limited, when time is precious for its rarity and not just its correlation to billing, then value, contribution and alignment are more powerful indicators of worth. In this way we transform law firm culture and transform the shadow of long hours being a route to success for in-house teams too.

Third, the agony of choosing between home and work is diminished. School events, family moments, uninterrupted holidays etc become easier to manage and with less guilt too. I have no evidence for what I am about to say, but I believe it to be true. My view is that this alone will have a huge beneficial impact on the well- being of lawyers, on creating better balance in their lives and assuring their longer term success by facilitating healthier more balanced workplaces. I am convinced we are currently risking the mental health of literally thousands of colleagues by the often ridiculous work place practices we inflict on them. Flexible working is a brilliant (I think essential) means to better manage people on a sustainable and more productive basis.

Law firms and companies who embrace the value of flexible working, who do not just implement a dry policy, but who lead it from the top and make it a cultural asset, will reap a dividend of talent development, loyalty and productivity that is unimagined by them today. The race for talent will not be about trainee salaries and gym membership; it will be a genuinely rounded, inclusive, diverse and sustainable offer that appeals to the hearts, minds and souls of those recruited.

Law firms and companies that do not see this coming or who implement a half-hearted approach, will simply fade away.

The predictions of what will "do" for law firms have usually involved the end of hourly billing and the rise of tech (including now AI robots). There is little sign yet that these predications have any lasting credibility as the profession seems to grow and adapt to each new challenge. The importance of flexible working, however, is that it does have the potential to end all the 19th century, male dominated nonsense that even today blights far too many young careers for men and women.

It is, therefore, my certain view that the best of the profession is still to come; it will be led equally by brilliant men and women who understand and demonstrate their value, their contribution and that their well-being (their families' well-being) and their team's well-being are the cornerstones of their success.

Gilbert is CE of LBC Wise Counsel.