Flexibility by default
By Leah Caprani
We should make agile working the new norm for junior lawyers, argues Leah Caprani
Flexible working has historically been perceived as a benefit reserved only for management and senior leadership. Indeed, research has found that 71 per cent of senior staff and directors work flexibly, compared to only 48 per cent of junior employees.
The covid-19 crisis means conventional working models are facing unprecedented change. With more junior lawyers working remotely than ever before, what are the long-term implications for the industry and will flexible working become the new normal for junior lawyers?
All UK employees with at least 26 weeks’ service have the right to make one request for flexible working (defined by the UK government as “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs”) in every 12-month period. While such an arrangement clearly contributes to employee wellbeing, such a wide definition fails to communicate the advantages for employers.
Increased staff motivation, fewer employee absences and reduced recruitment costs are just some of the benefits for employers. There’s also the reputational gain associated with becoming an employer of choice: research shows 81 per cent of lawyers actively look for flexible working options before joining a new company; but only 52 per cent of private practice lawyers have some degree of flexibility.
The legal industry mostly favours fulltime office-based working arrangements, despite being one of the most suitable industries for agile working. Except for face-to-face client meetings, typical tasks undertaken by solicitors can be done remotely.
Other traditional industries are already looking to agile working arrangements, for instance, the British Medical Association (BMA) has announced its intention to reform flexible working for junior doctors by the end of 2022. In light of the current circumstances, there is no doubt that flexible working will be part of workplace conversations for junior lawyers (and no doubt all lawyers) in future, yet there are certain challenges to overcome before it can become the new norm.
The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised to consult on making flexible working arrangements the default, unless employers have good reasons not to. However, there are obvious logistical issues to be addressed before flexible working for junior lawyers can become the norm. Trainee and junior solicitors require a certain level of supervision and have much to learn from being around experienced colleagues.
It is also important that they build effective relationships with colleagues to secure future career progression. In reality, such issues can be largely resolved through having the right technology in place. But this will not, on its own, tackle the stigma still attached to flexible working: 35 per cent of lawyers don’t feel comfortable discussing flexible working with their employer, compared to a UK average of 28 per cent.
The main reason was the perceived lack of commitment to the business which flexible working denotes. Interestingly, 89 per cent of legal organisations faced with the same question stated that employees would feel comfortable approaching the organisation for information on flexible working.
So there’s evidently a disconnect between what the organisation and its employees believe. This could be a significant barrier to making flexible working universal. To truly make it work, we must start with flexibility by default. On the employers’ side, this involves making flexible working universally available and advertising all job roles as flexible.
By training line managers how to handle flexible working requests and implement trial periods, firms can encourage leadership buy-in and eliminate assumptions regarding the unsuitability of flexible working for certain roles.
Actively advocating open conversations around work-life balance and preferred working styles will hopefully lessen the divide between employee and employer sentiments. Sharing flexible working success stories will help allay any fears regarding career progression. There is undeniably a lot more work to be done to make flexible working an organisational norm.
But this is an opportune moment to review any flexible working challenges in practice; and make changes to smooth the transition to a new norm for future generations of lawyers.
Leah Caprani is an executive committee member of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society