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Life in balance

18 February 19

Despite the desire for work-life balance, flexible working remains elusive for many solicitors. We spoke to employers large and small to find out how it can operate successfully in today’s world

by Peter Nicholson

Can lawyers achieve a good work-life balance? LawCare consistently reports stress as the most common cause of calls to its helpline; the Law Society of Scotland’s 2018 Profile of the Profession survey found that work-life balance was one reason why more than half of respondents had considered leaving the profession in the last five years, and the most important career goal over the next five years for a third of all who replied (see Journal, January 2019, 12).

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, fewer solicitors had access to flexible hours than in the previous survey in 2013. The Journal therefore set out to learn how such arrangements can work, and what difference they make.

Not everyone applies the same labels. “Flexible” and “agile” working mean different things to different people. For some, “flexible” means the IT-supported ability to work from any location, in or out of office, whereas a variable hours regime is “agile” working. For others the converse applies; in quotes in this feature each has to be read in context.

As promoted by Family Friendly Working Scotland (www.familyfriendlyworkingscotland.org.uk), flexible working can vary from traditional part-time working, to flexitime, staggered hours, working remotely, job sharing, compressed hours (full time over fewer days), annualised hours where the employee works a certain number of hours per year but with flexibility between periods of peak demand or other commitments, and phased retirement.

No half measures

“More than half of our people now work in an agile way,” Martin Glover, HR director at Morton Fraser confirms. “Really what we are trying to do is aligned to our growth strategy, to ensure we can attract, retain and develop the best possible talent. It’s very much a buyer’s market in the legal profession and people are making choices about organisations and their cultures.”

A bonus can be office cost savings, a point reinforced by Michael McLaughlin, UK head of employment at DWF: “In this day and age when office space is very expensive, the days of needing a desk for every single employee are outmoded, so there is a commercial driver as well as a staff motivation driver.” DWF now has an entire support team dedicated to producing documents, working from their own homes while providing 24/7 coverage. As for fee earners, “We’ve got lawyers of all ages and stages who work less than five days. We mustn’t just label flexible working as about looking after children. Some people want to have less work and more life, not just those in their 30s and 40s with young kids.”

At Turcan Connell, Gillian Crandles, head of family law, reports that about a third of fee earners work a different pattern to full time, as do a very high proportion of support staff. In addition, “Our agile working policy allows for up to two working days to be carried out from home each week, with a regular pattern of days in and out of the office being expected.”

Pinsent Masons has about 30% of its 860 staff working on a flexible basis, and nearly half its UK workspace has been fitted out for agile working, under which staff no longer have an allocated desk but have to book a desk every day or block book for longer periods.

Anderson Strathern’s Sara Jalicy, a residential conveyancing partner who has charge of the firm’s talent management strategy, has a paper before the board to develop further the firm’s flexible and agile working, having piloted in her team a policy where more than 50%, herself included, already work flexibly. “We’re seeing demand for work-life balance; our staff chose SAMH as our charity of the year, because it promotes the value of mental health in the workplace. We also recently celebrated 20 years as an Investor in People; the firm sees it as important to support all our employees, not just the lawyers.”

Don’t believe it can only happen in larger firms. Three years ago Emma Reid and Cathy Donald set up employment practice Ergo Law with the ethos of being able to work flexibly. Supported by one administrator, also on a flexible arrangement, they are now looking to take on someone else as workflow increases.

“We do try not to work full time hours; it’s not always possible but we have good flexibility in terms of where and when we work,” Reid explains. “There is nothing overly formalised about it.”

How does it operate with such a small number? “Emma has younger children than me, so she needs to leave for school pickup time and then go back to work,” Donald replies. “That’s probably where the benefit of that flexibility is. Emma and I both do a reasonably core day, Monday to Friday, but I tend to take a Monday afternoon off (when I volunteer with Cyrenians’ Golden Years scheme). We know each other well; we will check with each other if there’s a time somebody needs to be in the office, and keep an open and ongoing communication about the business’s needs and our diaries.”

Brian Inkster, who has allowed flexible working since he set up Inksters 20 years ago, also affirms its success in the smaller office. Some of his now eight local bases from the central belt to Caithness are run by consultant solicitors who, he says, work at places and times that suit them. “They are allowed complete freedom to tailor their working week the way they want to.” Other staff work three or four days, or earlier or later hours than 9-5 if it fits their home arrangements better.

Positive outcomes

There is consensus as to the benefits. “It’s integral to work-life balance and also high performance, and happiness,” Jalicy states. Paul Pignatelli, executive partner at DWF, believes it creates “a flexible and creative working environment that has a significant and positive work-life balance impact on our employees”.

Jonathan Bond, Pinsent Masons’ HR director, considers that “There is a correlation between agile working and high employee engagement. Engaged colleagues tend to enjoy their roles more, perform to a higher standard, and stay with the business longer.”

There is further agreement that the policy works best from the top down, with full buy-in at board level. Pinsent Masons’ senior managers are encouraged to be role models for agile working: none of the managing partner, senior partner or operations director has an allocated desk.

Likewise, Anderson Strathern’s managing partner Murray McCall “literally has no base”, Jalicy discloses, and chairman Bruce Farquhar makes a point of working one day a week from home. Morton Fraser expressly links its policy to attracting and retaining talent at all levels.

Glover reports: “What partners say to me is, when people get it, their whole mindset is much more flexible and they are more productive as a result.”

Bond adds: “It leads to increased inclusivity, widens networks, reduces unconscious bias, and increases knowledge sharing and opportunities for business.”

The business benefits may be intangible, but none doubt that they are real. McLaughlin reveals: “I know of lawyers within my group who have turned down jobs closer to their homes, and on better money, because they would not get the ability and the flexibility to stay at home either on a more formal basis or ad hoc for a day because their child is sick. There are a load of anecdotal cases where the ability to work flexibly within DWF has been the thing that has kept the employee with us.”

Others cite savings in commuting time and costs that also help make employees more productive.

Jalicy points out how, in the competition for talent, in-house working is attractive to many for its perceived advantage in offering more access to flexible working.

True it is, for example, that the Central Legal Office at NHS Scotland offers job or work sharing arrangements; flexitime for all solicitors; working from home in appropriate circumstances (subject to information governance issues); and paid parental leave. Other requests for flexible working are considered on their merits taking into account departmental and business requirements, and CLO director Norma Shippin believes her organisation “is a very flexible place to work and one of the reasons we retain staff”. Further, with digitisation and increasing use of electronic filing, “working from home, say for a day a week may become more achievable”.

Our illustrations suggest that private practice is capable of matching that.

“Treat people like adults”

An important factor is the element of trust. But no one speaks of this as a problem; if anything, it is well repaid.

“In my experience there needs to be trust and respect on a mutual basis in order to make this work,” Crandles states. “I am firmly of the view that given the level of trust we have in our employees to deal with matters of great significance and value for our clients, there is no issue with them doing so whether they are sitting in the office where I can see them, or at home or indeed elsewhere remotely.”

Glover contends it is part of having a high performance culture to allow people personal responsibility for how they perform, and where they perform. “Part of what you get when you treat people like adults, and that’s really what this is about, is people themselves understand the arrangements that others are already working, and sometimes take that into account in their requests. People start then to make arrangements amongst themselves, so it isn’t the manager having to decide, and that’s got to be a good solution.”

McLaughlin remarks: “Without trying to get more discretionary effort, you actually do get it... you’re showing a huge amount of trust and that trust is usually reciprocated.”

Bond agrees: “To succeed, agile working relies strongly on teamwork and, like all teamwork, it depends on a high level of trust, considerable commitment from all concerned and excellent communication.”

On the flip side

That said, there are those who prefer to be in the office, for various reasons. McLaughlin’s experience is that recently qualified solicitors who are developing their careers want to spend more time with partners and line managers and getting to know their colleagues, so flexible working is less prevalent with them.

He adds: “We mustn’t forget that work and workplaces have a very important social function – people don’t want to lose contact with their colleagues and their team. It’s about getting the balance right. The workplace physically helps in terms of esprit de corps, camaraderie, friendship, especially when most offices are open plan.” For all employees, he recognises the risk of pressure to be available beyond agreed hours, and for those out of office the blurring of the line between working and not working.

“It requires managers to be aware of that and intervene to make sure that people know, say, that a response is not required immediately to an email if that is the case. It’s an aspect we need to keep an eye on.”

Crandles agrees: “People need to be able to switch off and not feel they are permanently connected to their phones, tablets and laptops.”

Few other downsides are reported. Jalicy points out the need for those out of office the most, still to feel part of the team and not excluded in any way, but adds that this is easier where the whole team is working flexibly and remotely. “I think if you’re the only one, that becomes a difficulty because you’re the exception, but when you’re the rule, it’s far easier.”

Clients do it too

What do clients think? Do they even notice?

Glover reports that Morton Fraser is quite often asked about work practices and benefits when tendering for business, especially by public sector clients.

As far as McLaughlin is concerned, “it’s a fact of life for clients and businesses – larger commercial clients and also local SME clients”. Regarding his non-availability at school run time, “Maybe five or 10 years ago that would have raised eyebrows; now it’s not even remarked on. It’s part of the fabric of work. Clients are more flexible about where and when they have time with you.”

Ergo Law’s Reid has been “quite pleasantly surprised” how clients have viewed it. “We work for a mixture of individuals and businesses and I’ve never had a negative comment. If anything, if a client sees I’ve picked up an email at a time when I might not be expected to be working, they tend to feel quite happy about that; they’re getting prioritised.”

She adds: “It’s definitely something people are getting more comfortable with. More and more clients have flexible working arrangements and they don’t bat an eyelid.”

For a small firm with a more traditional background, how might it make the transition? “It can be difficult to look at office practices and think, should we let go of that and try something different,” Reid replies, “but as employment lawyers and solicitors I would say have a go. Maybe you won’t get it absolutely right first time, but that’s the thing with flexible working, I suppose: you want to be a bit flexible, that’s on both sides; you try something out and see how it works, see if anything needs changed or adjusted or added in. Both sides need to keep an open mind.” 

Views from the ground

Our enquiries revealed some interesting cases of solicitors choosing to combine legal work with other interests.

Brian Inkster had a colleague for many years who was also a church minister, and worked flexible hours that allowed him to do both jobs until he decided to dedicate his time fully to the church. One of his present consultants, Steven McDonald, is a primary school parent but also has a performing arts business, and having flexible hours “helps me take acting roles in an industry where casting is often at short notice”. In return, he takes evening calls and meetings with property investor clients who find that more convenient than during 9-5 hours. Another consultant, Joanne Romanis, is a livestock breeder who has a similar farmer client with seasonal as well as day-to-day preferences for consulting times, which she can accommodate.

Sara Jalicy at Anderson Strathern explains how she has been able to recruit “somebody exceptional who had worked with us before”, but who had to leave when her professional sportsman husband was posted down south. Thinking of online estate agents, Jalicy realised “I could still have that excellent person. So now she works for us on a contract where she has a four day week (she has two young sons) and starts at 10. I was able to get the best possible person for my clients, and she works from Surrey or wherever she is, the entire time” – keeping in contact regularly by Skype, if not actual meetings.

From an in-house perspective, Vlad Valiente, now with Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, has worked flexibly with three employers over the last seven years, with different working patterns as his circumstances changed – beginning with compressed hours to enable him to see more of his fiancée, then in a different part of the country.

“The more recent compressed hour patterns have allowed me to take every Wednesday off and look after my son and daughter that day. I have therefore saved on significant childcare costs, but more importantly I get to spend a whole day with my children.

“Benefit to the employer is a happy, accommodating and loyal employee. I can’t put a price on the benefits to my family life.”

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