Dana Denis-Smith considers whether a four-day week could work in the legal sector
This summer, more than 3,300 workers at 70 UK companies began working a four-day week with no loss of pay. The pilot, which is running for six months, is the world’s biggest trial of the new working pattern.
Organised by Four Day Week Global, in partnership with the thinktank Autonomy, the Four Day Week Campaign, and researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College, the trial is based on the 100:80:100 model – 100 per cent of pay for 80per cent of the time, in exchange for a commitment to maintain 100per cent productivity.
Researchers are working with each participating organisation to measure the impact on productivity in the business and the wellbeing of its workers, as well as the impact on the environment and gender equality.
Historically a four-day week was considered far too radical a move for the mainstream – but with companies involved in the pilot – including those in finance, hospitality, housing, construction, recruitment and marketing – and big names such as Unilever and Panasonic also undertaking their own trials, more widespread uptake is coming a step closer.
Just a pipe dream?
The move comes at a time when the labour market is increasingly competitive. Post-pandemic, people are re-evaluating their lifestyle, considering the importance of time with family and friends, quality of life and mental wellbeing.
At the same time, firms which, prior to the pandemic, were often resistant to flexible working requests, have embraced flexible and hybrid working in a way no one in the sector would have believed possible five years ago. Some firms have already made forays into shorter working weeks. London and southeast firm, Thackray Williams, last year introduced a flexible working policy enabling staff to compress 10 days’ work into nine so that they can take the 10th day off.
Their ‘you day’ policy applies to full-time staff, with managers monitoring output rather than input, trusting their staff to decide whether they can take advantage of the benefit. The firm hope that this option will make them stand out given the employee market is currently so competitive.
Osborne Clarke has also dipped its toe in the water – some lawyers worked four-day weeks during the pandemic – and found they were able to bill more hours due to working efficiently.
The billable hour
So, would firms be willing to entertain a four-day week? And would it work in practice?
There are some major barriers in the way, not least the billable hour model that still dominates. In part because of sky high billing targets, most solicitors work far longer than nine to five, five days a week.
With people working far more than they are contractually obliged to, even if a four-day week was implemented, it is likely the majority would inevitably end up working just as much as before. Unless we see firms moving away from this model, it is hard to see how more radical changes to working arrangements, such as a four-day week, could catch on across the board.
Progress is, however, being made - when we hear Georgia Dawson, as the leader of a firm the size of Freshfields, talk about focusing on “outputs, not just inputs,” as she did in her Fiona Woolf Lecture last year, it suggests change is on the horizon.
Further, with firms now having a growing cadre of business specialists who are not qualified lawyers but are crucial to the firm’s success, they are being forced to focus on how to adjust their compensation packages and performance management accordingly, opening up more opportunities to overhaul traditional working practices.
Another barrier is client demand. Clients expect their lawyers to be available 24/7, with round-the-clock availability a service most firms consider to be an important part of their offer. There is a danger clients would vote with their feet – and, on hearing their lawyers will only be available four days a week, would go elsewhere.
The reality is that if a four-day week were to work in firms, client teams would need to be structured and managed in such a way as to provide a seamless service to the client. That means adapting knowledge management systems and working models to ensure someone who is up to speed is always available and that there is a handover to cover days off. This includes taking learnings from other industries around job design, team structure and use of technology to ensure seamless client service.
Clients should be more willing to accept alternative arrangements when they consider the benefits of flexible working in terms of more diverse teams, improved wellbeing and lawyers who are not stressed or overworked. They can exercise their buying power to ensure that policies and approaches go beyond a tick box exercise and are actively enforced to the benefit of all.
While implementing a four-day week would not be straightforward, the benefits for those with caring responsibilities would be huge. For the most part, that continues to be women, who make up over half of all solicitors but are still absent from many of the top roles in the profession.
A lack of flexible working has always been a key factor in this, with women choosing to move in-house, or even out of the profession altogether when their children are young.
Businesses going for an automatic right to a four-day week on full pay would be hugely attractive to women lawyers looking for a more flexible working pattern and additional time to spend with family.
It would also normalise a four-day week across the business. We often find women are concerned even where their firm is theoretically willing to offer part time working, that this would lead to them being considered less committed or ambitious and less likely to be given the best work or promotion opportunities.
Another huge advantage would be the ability to retain and attract staff. NQ lawyer salaries are currently hitting new heights as firms try to recruit and keep talent – at a time when the workforce is re-evaluating its priorities post-covid 19.
While this might entice those starting out in their career, sky-high financial rewards will not meet the challenge of keeping enough experienced lawyers at these firms in the long term, especially at a time when so many are experiencing burnout.
Younger lawyers may be able to handle the toll long hours take on their physical and mental health for the sake of a boost to their finances. Long term, however, there are few who can sustain this. The recent LawCare report into the profession found that those aged 26-35 have the highest risk of burnout. Associate level is the point at which many decide they’ve had enough.
Offering a four-day week would be a key differentiator for those looking for a better quality of life.
These benefits may, in time, override many of the barriers currently barring the way to a four-day week. Innovation in the way we work should be a key priority for firms that want to be fit for the future, catering for the needs of a diverse workforce and a new generation of lawyers who are less willing to adhere to the traditional norms of the legal profession.
While the one size fits all approach to flexible working offered by the four-day week may not be realistic for many firms, a more bespoke approach to flexible working arrangements that takes into account client demand and the different requirements across practice areas and among employees, is essential in the modern legal market.
Dana Denis-Smith is CEO of Obelisk Support: obelisksupport.com
Trustee / CEO