3 May 2018

Lawyers have traditionally worked long and hard, driven by billable hours and client demands. In this day and age, when many firms espouse flexible work policies, why are many lawyers still not being taken seriously when they choose to work part-time?

Facetime does not equal commitment

One of the biggest barriers that need to be overcome is the misconception that people who work less hours aren’t as committed to their role. Research by McKinsey & Co in the US found that 75% of women and 74% of men in law firms believed that working part-time would negatively affect their career, compared to 68% and 71% respectively in other businesses. Clearly, there is a systemic issue within the legal industry that equates facetime with commitment.

Someone does not need to work every day to service their clients well or be an expert in their field. While many firms are moving away from traditional time-based fee models, they are still reluctant to restructure the way their lawyers work to give them more flexibility. As a result, they risk losing high-quality employees and valuable expertise. This is nonsensical because clients value a lawyer for their expertise, business acumen, and knowledge, not for the number of hours they bill.

It’s time to restructure work

Allowing lawyers to work part-time isn’t as simple as just putting in place a policy. Given the client aspects of the role and the specialist knowledge required, it is necessary to put in place systems and processes to make sure all bases are covered.

It is not enough to change hours and pay for someone who works part-time, there must also be a commensurate change in their performance targets, billable hours and workload to take their reduced hours into consideration. Research by Cambridge University found that in many industries, including law firms, this actually did not occur. The pay changed but everything else remained the same for people who worked part-time, so effectively businesses were expecting the same productive output for less.

To do this effectively, firms need to look at the entire role, not just the client work. While expectations of billable hours need to be pro-rated, implicit work – like training, travel, business development, staff management and administration – also need to be factored in or restructured so they don’t take up as much precious time. While it is not always possible to cut a training program in half, it is realistic to reduce the number of direct reports a person has or to hold more meetings by video conference.

Future career progression is as important to a part-timer as it is for a full-timer – they should have equal opportunities to develop and progress. Removing things like business development from a part-timers workload may actually impact their future career path. It is important to be cognisant of this and make sure that the individual’s parity in terms of seniority, career progression opportunities and pay is not affected in the future just because they choose to work part-time.

Key person risk is a significant challenge for many law firms, so it is in their interests to put in place working models that alleviate that risk. Team-based models, where knowledge is shared and accessible to everyone, can ensure that client work continues even when someone is out of the office. There are many collaboration and knowledge sharing tools available thanks to the wonders of modern technology. These are not only helpful when someone is working part-time, but can also help full-time lawyers who may be caught up on other projects when something urgently requires their expertise.

Firms will benefit from embracing part-time workers

Law firms are people based businesses. They rely on talent to look after their clients and build their reputation. By not just paying lip-service to flexible work, but actually acknowledging that part-time workers are just as serious about their role as those who work full-time, law firms can access a much larger pool of talent and retain existing talent.

Other potential benefits include additional flexibility – part-time workers who are open to working extra hours when required give firms the ability to scale up or down to meet demand. By sharing knowledge, law firms can also build their expertise across a broader base and reduce their key person risk, which is beneficial to everyone involved. When employees are working on their own terms they are also more engaged.

Embracing new models that enable lawyers to work part-time requires cultural change as well as new working models. These are essential to ensure that lawyers who choose to work part-time can contribute and continue to develop their career.