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Flexible working in the law

Does the traditional long hours culture of many law firms accommodate those who wish to work part time or flexibly? A consideration of the various options.

A Law Society report in 2005 on flexible working and solicitors’ work-life balance gathered information from 1,120 practising solicitors working in private practice, commerce and industry and government. The researchers found that the highest percentage of solicitors offered flexible working was to be found where the respondents were employed in government organisations (97% of men, 96% of women). The lowest percentage was in private practice (54% of men, 46% of women), with commerce and industry at 66% for men and 52% for women.

What is quite noticeable however is that, at least at the time of the research in 2005, the numbers of solicitors actually taking up an offer of flexible working was significantly lower. In private practice the percentage of men working flexibly was reported as 14% and for women 19%.

The long hours culture in the legal profession is well known. Working late at night, at weekends and cancelling social arrangements are common in the legal profession, particularly at larger commercial firms. Younger lawyers without family commitments may be happy to accept this as part of a package of financial rewards, work satisfaction and career progression. Lawyers with families however may want to consider the options and alternatives. The percentages of solicitors satisfied with their work-life balance in the Law Society report was 44% across all the sectors but for those working flexibly the percentage satisfied with their work-life balance increased 54%.

Types of flexible working

Flexible hours

Some employers may offer the option of working flexibly by taking time off in lieu of additional hours worked. Alternatively there may be the option of a different working hours structure, for example:

  • An early start with an early finish (staggered hours);
  • Working four days per week but with additional hours on those days to meet a full- time hours target (compressed hours);
  • School term only hours.

How successful such an arrangement may be can often depend on the culture of the organisation.

Part-time hours

Reduced working hours will mean a pro-rata reduction in salary. This type of working arrangement needs to be carefully managed by both employer and employee to ensure that the part-time worker is not placed in the situation of seeking to cram a full-time work load into part-time hours.

Job sharing

Effectively the job of one employee is shared by two employees. The success of this type of arrangement will depend on a good working relationship between the two employees. It is common for the job sharers to both work in the office at least one day a week.

Home working

With the advent of more sophisticated technology, home working is on the increase. Employees may either work from home on the occasional day or permanently, with the home based employee attending the office for meetings only. In law firms the occasional day of home working is the more common practice. There are many advantages to both employer and employee and with the reduction in commuting, it’s environmentally friendly too!

Legal implications

Whilst any employee can request flexible working arrangements, the law provides a specific right to request flexible working for those employees who have a child under the age of 6, or a disable child under the age of 18. It should be noted that the right is not to flexible working itself but rather the right to request it. The employer has a duty to consider the request and give written reasons explaining any refusal of such a request.

Making a request for flexible working

For lawyers in private practice, flexible working is still relatively a new phenomenon. As shown by the statistics in the Law Society research detailed above, lawyers working in government in particular are more familiar with flexible working than those in private practice.

Take time to consider whether flexible working is feasible for your specific role. Client work is intensive and urgent work is common. Your employer will be less interested in how flexible working will suit you than in how it will affect them. You will need to make a carefully reasoned and well though out case. Some factors to consider may be as follows:

  • Will you still be able to do exactly the same type of work you do now, or will there need to be some changes? If changes are needed, who can do the work you may no longer be able to do? For example, a criminal lawyer who wishes to work part time and no longer cover the duty solicitor rota at evenings and weekends will need to be able to suggest how that work may be covered.
  • Will your clients be happy with the change? If you are the main contact for a significant commercial client, who can that client contact with confidence in your absence?
  • If you plan to work from home, set out exactly how many of your hours will be spent home working. Will additional IT support and a separate phone line at home be needed to accommodate this?
  • If you plan to either reduce your hours or change your pattern of working, set out your exact proposal (in writing) so there are no misunderstandings.
  • Can you add value by undertaking some new work? Could you reduce your client work but contribute more to other aspects, for example, marketing?
  • Consider the benefits for your employer; not least that your skills and experience will be retained within their business but never use the request for flexible working as a threat to resign as that is unlikely to lead to positive negotiations.

Alternatives

There are legal careers in which flexible working may be more easily accommodated. [See the articles on In-house lawyers and Professional support lawyers].

The future

Private practice employers seem to be much more aware in recent years that in order to retain good employees, work-life factors cannot be disregarded. The law may be behind other sectors in welcoming flexible working but improvements seem to be on the horizon.

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