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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Why regional UK law firms are better at flexible working than City firms

Why regional UK law firms are better at flexible working than City firms


By Steve Ryan, Managing Partner, SA Law

Fostering a degree of flexibility in the workplace is no longer a pie-in-the-sky management concept, nice on paper, but unrealistic in day-to-day life – it’s a legal requirement.

Given the change in UK law earlier this year, which extended the right to all employees to request flexible working, many lawyers may well be advising clients on the best way to implement a successful flexible working policy, while also thinking wistfully of their own long-hours culture and inflexible working arrangements.

In the UK legal sector, we are seeing more firms embrace more flexible ways of working. It has been reported recently, for instance, that Slaughter and May has launched a work-from-home programme which it will pilot for six months. Partners and associates will be working from home for one day every two weeks and take-up has already been strong, it seems.

However, more can and needs to be done to ensure law firms keep up with the rest of the business community and truly commit to offering flexible working arrangements.

Flexibility in law

To outside observers, a large proportion of the legal profession continues to employ working practices modelled on its traditional heritage, with many firms unable or unwilling to foster a workplace environment in which flexible working
is seen as a benefit rather than as nuisance value.

It is essential that firms adapt and evolve. Younger lawyers starting out on their careers now expect and place increasing importance on more harmonious work/life balance. Firms that don’t have that in their armoury may lose out in the race to attract the best talent.

Even today, many female lawyers find it more difficult to progress on an equal footing after returning from maternity leave, as presenteeism is often still promoted at the expense of flexible/part-time working. However, these forms of working can often be equally or sometimes even more efficient in delivering good client service.

We are also seeing different ways to work in the legal profession coming to the fore – models such as Lawyers on Demand means that some lawyers are choosing to work on a variety of interesting cases and projects, while maintaining flexibility and autonomy
over when and where they work. In addition, changes in technology and outsourcing are challenging the law
firm’s traditional model.

A regional divide

Flexibility in the workplace comes in two forms:

  1. permitting working hours on a non-conventional timetable or from home; and

  2. tailoring roles to suit individuals’ strengths, rather than shoehorning them into specific roles.

Regional firms tend to be better at flexible working because, outside of London, we see a greater emphasis on lasting, people-orientated relationships with both staff and clients, which goes beyond the issue of working hours.

As a regional firm, we have actually benefitted from the inflexibility of the City law firm culture, hiring a number of talented lawyers who no longer want to work in the centre of London.

Implementing a flexible working policy can be more challenging when a firm’s working practices are deeply embedded. Firms that that have the ability and the appetite to think outside the box and to implement innovative structures can steal a march on their competitors. Smaller firms can be more agile and have more confidence to innovate and break away from the traditional law firm structure.

Many firms are attempting to develop their policies on flexible working, but I believe that regional firms have an edge – it can be easier to break away from traditional roles when you have a smaller and more responsive structure. We have the client relationships to make it work and can base decisions around our people more than how we implement firmwide policy.

Impact on clients

Shouldn’t we be thinking more about how flexible working can benefit our clients? The market is now finally in an upswing and lawyers need to respond to surges in demand. If our clients are working more flexibly too, we need to think how this impacts the services we provide – and how we provide them.

Let’s give serious thought to how we can improve our services to help clients work more flexibly, perhaps even more than ourselves. We are in danger of becoming too introspective as we contemplate the improvements that a
new culture of flexible working can
bring to law firms. We should be
thinking more about how flexible
working can benefit our clients.

Steve Ryan is managing partner at UK law firm SA Law (