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Effective and attractive flexible working policies

With an ever-growing expectation of flexible working amongst candidates, firms that do this well will attract and retain great talent.

With an ever-growing expectation of flexible working amongst candidates, firms that do this well will attract and retain great talent.  But what do we mean by flexible working?  And how do firms do it well?

Over recent years, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers are coming to expect at least some form of flexible working.  But what does this, practically, look like?  How do firms balance this against their wider business and client demands? While also setting themselves apart as an employer of choice?

In this Insight, we’ve taken a shot at trying to consolidate all the various conversations Insource has had with its subscribers, its professional network, and wider market about flexible working.  While developing effective flexible working policies can be laborious, the long and short of it is that if firms do it well, they will set themselves apart in terms of attracting and retaining good talent.

Come with an open mind

In discussing the development or refinement of a firm’s flexible working policy, it is important to try and come with an open mind. That means setting aside assumptions on how you expect employees to want to work. Partners, and senior lawyers, have previously had to work in a more structured and inflexible way. But that does not mean it was the ‘right’ way, or that junior staff must work in the same way. 

The reality is that the new generation of lawyers have different expectations.

Don’t have an inflexible flexible working policy

It is also important to (potentially) state the obvious, don’t have an inflexible flexible working policy.  Dictating to employees that flexible working means X is simply not good enough.  An effective flexible working policy should not dictate that flexible working is onlyworking from home one afternoon a month (with Partner sign off), or working from home one day a week (with a business case and Partner signoff each week).

Unique to each employee and firm

In line with our comments above, an effective flexible working policy will be unique to each employee and firm.  We address balancing an effective policy against the specific business and client demands of each firm below. 

Firms need to consider who their employees are and each stage of their career and life.  Have policies that allow for flexibility or time out of your career for families / travel / sporting events / community involvement. 

In addition, the policy for a top tier national firm, a specialist boutique firm and a local generalist firm will be different.  So, copying and pasting a ‘standard’ policy is not going to work either.

Consider all your current and desired future employees, including those that don’t have time out of their career for ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ reasons like children or travel.  How will the policy support those 30 or 40 something singles? What about LGBTQ+ members who wish to start a family?  Those taking care of aged parents?  Those wishing to train for a marathon?  Those wishing to undertake further study while continuing to work?  Those heavily involved in churches, community groups and charities?

Balanced against business and client demands

Each firm’s clients will have differing demands, as will the practice areas those lawyers are operating in.  Litigators still need to appear in court, property lawyers still need to settle transactions by 4pm etc.  There are also the needs of client meetings, mediations, and being available to clients within a reasonable timeframe.  

A challenging thought for most law firms is that within a ‘reasonable timeframe’ may not mean same day.  It is the responsibility of Partners to educate their clients (to the extent possible) about when to expect a response.  Also keep in mind that today’s clients are not necessarily tomorrow’s. The new generation of lawyers have different expectations, but so do the new generation of a firm’s clients.

Good workplaces are also defined (in part) by their culture.  And that can mean time in the office together as a team.   

However, if those requirements can be met then why can’t lawyers work the hours that suit them?  For example, if a lawyer is an early riser can they start their day at 6am, work through to 12.30pm, have the afternoon off, and then log on in the evening for a couple of hours? 

What about those who have time consuming hobbies?  Elite sporting interests? Lifestyle blocks?  How can firms support their employees to have the life outside of work the employees want, while also meeting the needs and requirements of their jobs?

Needs of junior v senior staff

There is also the reality that junior staff require mentoring, supervision, and training.  They don’t know how to do the job yet, so fully flexible working won’t suit them.  However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be some flexibility. 

Senior staff who have the responsibility to train junior staff also need to balance their flexibility against that need.  Open communication and clear expectations will assist in this.

Suggestions to ponder

Insource has spoken to others outside and within the legal industry and found some interesting types of flexible working.  These are here for firms to ponder and maybe stretch their idea of what flexible working is:

  • School age children contracts: guaranteed all (or part of) school holidays off as unpaid leave.
  • 12 weeks paid leave for the main caregiver of a child under 1.
  • Sabbatical leave: this has fallen out of use in recent years, but why?  Bringing it back will set firms apart.  For example, after 5 years getting 6 weeks additional leave or 6 months unpaid leave.   
  • Work for your day: come in early, long lunch break, sign on in the evening.  If there aren’t deadlines to meet, meetings and court appearances to attend, then work where and how it suits.

Front foot these conversations.  Even firms that offer great flexible or bespoke arrangements tend to wait for employees to ask.  A radical thought is what if firms discussed flexible working as part of their normal review process?  That would definitely set them apart in the current recruitment market.

Closing thoughts

The new generation of lawyers are expecting more than just 8.30-5pm, Monday through Friday.  They want a career that works in with their wider life aspirations and goals ’work life integration’ OR ‘work to live not live to work’. 

Firms that embrace this new reality and lean into these conversations with their employees will set themselves apart in a candidate short market.  For firms to attract and retain great talent, they need to start thinking outside the box. 

In addition to our Insource platform, which provides visibility of the entire legal market in New Zealand and all lawyers at the top 50 Australian firms, we offer wraparound support for a firm’s recruitment needs.  Insource provides timely assistance on how to get the most out of the Insource platform, and how to craft an effective recruitment strategy.  Please get in touch for a demo and to discuss how Insource can help you find the best lawyers for your firm.

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