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Jonathan Wheeler

Managing Partner, Bolt Burdon Kemp

Quotation Marks
Presenteeism was pathetic. It was the quality of the work that really counted

The law leaders who transformed working life

The law leaders who transformed working life


Jonathan Wheeler explains how the quality of lawyers' work and flexible working are closely intertwined, while Lynne Burdon learn that leaders must show by example   

Working in London and, before that, on Merseyside the daily commute to the office really used to irk me (how I now long for the return to the office in lockdown!).

On my drive into the office in Liverpool – or on my train and tube journey into Islington – I used to ponder why we had a rush hour. What was the point of everyone from everywhere rushing to get into a relatively small space (the city) at the same time?

And then doing the same thing in reverse to get home again? Wouldn’t it be better if it was more spaced out? I would sigh and put aside such heretical thoughts. Then, five years after I joined Bolt Burdon Kemp (BBK), that’s exactly what we did – we put those heretical thoughts into action.

In 2003 Lynne Burdon, BBK’s founding and managing partner, introduced a flexible working policy par excellence. None of this clock-watching and taking an hour in lieu here or there ‘because I worked extra last week’. No, a proper flexible working policy: subject always to the needs of your clients and in cooperation with your team colleagues, staff can work where and when they liked.

You could literally work on a beach in Honolulu if you wanted. What was important was not where you did your work, but the quality of the work you did. By having control over when and where you worked, the theory was that the quality of your work would increase.

Due to the covid-19 situation, many if not all firms have had to adapt to remote working. If your culture wholeheartedly embraced flexible working beforehand, then you are likely to have fared well, but don’t confuse flexible working with forced working away from the office.

Forcing anything on anyone rarely gets the best out of them. ‘Flexible’ is the key word here – sometimes working in the office, sometimes not. The top management challenge for me and my team is to create an office environment so good that when we are allowed back in June (fingers crossed) people really want to come in and work there, even though they can work away from there.

We know that people like working in proximity with each other. They learn better that way, they are more creative working collaboratively and they are more sociable. These social bonds are hugely important in promoting cohesion, working well as a team, and this is good for the health of any business.  

People said we were mad back in 2003 when we introduced this policy. We were asked how we could trust our staff to do the work. Naturally we had ways of monitoring the quality as well as the quantity of hours. We set people targets as to the number of hours they would be expected to work in a day/week/month/year.

On occasion, our costs team would be called upon to undertake an audit to examine the quality of those hours. But trust our people we did. When you are employing lawyers, you are taking on highly skilled, intelligent (and expensive) staff. Why wouldn’t you trust them to do the right thing? If you can’t trust them, then let’s face it – you shouldn’t be employing them.

Contrast this with a previous firm I worked with (which shall remain nameless). Solicitors literally had to clock in and clock out. I had a card with my name on it at the door. This would be time-stamped when I arrived for the day and stamped again when I left. Pre-printed time sheets had to be completed in which I had to account for every 6-minute unit (“You took a long time in the bathroom on Wednesday, Jonathan”).

Then there was the ‘monthly sackings list’ which was circulated to all branches, with a list of fee earners and their hours and billing for the month. If you remained for too long in the bottom quartile, you were given your marching orders.

Not a nice place to work. I was there for two months, one month of which was working my notice.

Quality of work

So what a breath of fresh air Bolt Burdon Kemp was. Allowing people to have control over their working day meant they could concentrate on doing their best work at times to suit. You could work your work life around your real life and not the other way around.

Staying in the office long enough to be noticed by your boss was pointless when your boss wasn’t there to notice you. Presenteeism was pathetic. It was the quality of the work that really counted. Doing a great job for your clients was what got you out of bed in the morning (or the afternoon).

Changing the law for the good of your clients and others like them – that fed the fire in the belly. What need were policies which stipulated what time you had to be in the office or, for that matter, what you had to wear when you got there?

Trusting your staff and respecting them is the key to attracting a talented workforce and nurturing loyalty. Our staff are among the best in the business. Giving them the tools to do their best work means our clients are best served.

Working within an arbitrary time frame suits nobody, probably least of all our clients whose need to speak to their lawyer, give instructions or provide details for a witness statement are unlikely to fit neatly into ‘9 to 5’ hours either.

Of course, flexibility works both ways. Our lawyers are contactable outside traditional hours for the ease of our clients and to promote the stellar service our clients rightly demand and that we strive to provide.

That doesn’t mean we are on duty 24/7. Clients’ expectations are managed and we work in teams so that even when one lawyer is not contactable, the client will be able to speak to someone else who has worked on their case, who knows them and can help.

The pay conundrum

As a litigation firm which concentrates purely on representing the interests of seriously injured people, we get paid by the hour. What an inefficient way of working. I know that some in our profession still appear to believe we get paid by the word, but being paid by the hour is equally crazy.

People should be paid for their best work, for the quality not the quantity of their output. A solution to that conundrum should really be the subject of a consultation by the Civil Justice Council, not the tinkering with the guideline hourly rates we have seen of late.

Scrapping payment by the hour for litigation work may be truly heretical today. But I believe it is, only to the extent that – once upon a time – the notion of true flexible working was considered so.

Jonathan Wheeler is managing partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp


Lynne Burdon got herself a coach and changed her ways

Law firms are notorious for their culture of working long hours – those who put in the most graft and bill the most hours succeed in the tournament and get the prize of partnership.

And yet I know from my experience as a coach that they often get the promised money, but rarely do they get happiness. The long-hours culture is a recipe for lack of sleep, short tempers and a feeling of hopelessness which often leads to divorce, misuse of alcohol or drugs, mental and physical illness.

I played this game. As managing partner, I was a slave to the ‘to do’ list, always feeling I had to work harder than anyone else. I had a reputation for my bark being worse than my bite – and maybe worst of all I was proud of that.

My relationship and my children suffered. Staff avoided me if they could see I was in one of my frequent bad moods. I knew I was living a life that I did not want for our staff.  This all changed for me when I got a coach who was able to work with me to see the error of my ways.

The irony is that because of the way our brain works, we simply cannot do our best work when we are stressed.

Think about the days when you were worried sick about a case that had gone wrong or a personal matter at home – you were completely unable to concentrate. That is our ancient limbic brain trying to protect us – overriding the logical and thinking human parts of our brain and kicking us into fight, flight or freeze mode.

Think about when you have had your best ideas – maybe in the bath, or doing the housework or when out walking in nature. That is not coincidence. These are the times when threat is not present and your limbic brain is snoozing, leaving your amazing human brain to do its best work.

Surely, we owe it to our clients and colleagues to bring our best selves to work – to do our best work rather than our most work.

The higher you get in an organisation the more important this is. Clients expect partners to come up with innovative ideas to progress their case. Staff expect senior management teams to listen and think and provide safety.

Lawyers are intelligent and independent people. They will only choose to follow leaders they trust and respect. Leaders must set the example. As long as the leaders are working long hours, staff will not believe that this is not necessary.

Leaders must change the focus to rewarding great thinking, innovative ideas, good delegation – recognising that it is these things that make the firm more profitable in the long term. Leaders need to understand that if they have happy, healthy staff who have a good deal of autonomy, this will lead to better long-term results.

Of course, the chargeable hours still have to be done – but what is really important is the quality of those hours rather than the number of them.

It is time for lawyers to be paid for value added rather than hours worked.

Lynne Burdon is the founder and former managing partner of Bolt Burdon Kemp. She is now a coach and consultant to law firm leaders