A new chapter: flexible working in law

In our rapidly changing working environment, more and more young lawyers are choosing to work flexibly rather than in an office environment with fixed contracts and working hours. As this pattern becomes more and more common, what effect will it have on the legal profession?

  • Last updated Mar 19, 2019 10:59:14 AM
  • Sophie Nevrkla

The legal profession is one of the oldest in the world and has a strong sense of history and tradition. Most people would associate it with barristers in powdered white wigs defending clients in dusty courtrooms, or else young solicitors beavering away in central London offices well into the early hours of the morning.

However, today’s digital world means that we’re eternally, irrevocably connected, and many of us can access our office environment from home, via a computer. This new trend means that more and more of us are freelancing— even in the world of law.

Flexible working in law essentially means that employees aren’t contracted to work at a specific firm, in a specific office, with a set number of working hours per week. A flexible lawyer might work from home instead, in their own time. They don’t sign a permanent contract with a company—instead, they might be contracted to work in a business for a specific project, for around 6–18 months, with the rest of the permanent legal team, before moving on to their next assignment. Flexible lawyers are fast becoming a vital portion of the five million or so workers in Britain who are part of the gig economy. 

And it isn’t just new, entrepreneurial firms who are willing to experiment with new work structures. More and more established firms are beginning to, or already have, trialled flexible hours. Clifford Chance’s managing partner David Bickerton encourages partners to work from home where possible; at Slaughter & May, a flexible-working scheme has been trialled that allows employees to work from home for one day per fortnight. 

Other legal-service providers outsource lawyers to companies with specific business needs—which, in our fast-paced supply-and-demand economy, proves popular. Hiring people on an ad-hoc basis to work on particular cases is both more affordable and, perhaps, more effective— lawyers can work on cases that inspire them most and appeal to what experience they have. Having the same set of lawyers working day-to-day is, for many firms, beginning to seem unnecessary. 

Matthew Kay, director of Vario at Pinsent Masons, the leading global legal-services provider of flexible law firm-led solutions, agrees with the importance of having specialist lawyers who can be flexible: “We have a wide variety of lawyers working for Vario, specialising in most practice areas and we operate within all of our core sectors, including manufacturing & technology, financial services, energy, infrastructure and real estate. 

“The great thing about having a flexible resource for clients is that Vario lawyers are a source of instant support, ready to add value to an organisation immediately—they can be parachuted in-house to work intensively on a specific project for six months, for example.” Parachuting in, as it were, appeals as much to lawyers as it does to firms. “We have found there are a number of reasons why lawyers decide to make the switch to contracting. I think many people assume lawyers make the switch because they want to improve their work-life balance, and although that’s a big motivator, we have found the most popular reason is to improve their variety of work. 

“Working as a contract lawyer means you’re working on different projects, with businesses across a wide variety of sectors, and I think more and more professionals are looking to shake things up and broaden their experience and expertise.

“Some lawyers also switch to this way of working to avoid office politics or the business-development side of working in a firm—it doesn’t suit everyone.”

Having more time to themselves and more control over their own schedule has delivered massive improvements to the mental health of lawyers. Kay cites a recent survey of their lawyers that found 89% of them believe their quality of life has improved since becoming a Vario. Flexible hours means lawyers have significantly more time to spend pursuing hobbies, spending time with their families or living abroad. One of Vario’s lawyers, Kay says, even splits her time between Italy and the UK. 

“Our Varios are a very interesting bunch of people and so many of them utilise their improved work-life balance to devote time to other passions they have. For example, one of our Varios, Henry, also runs an adventure-sailing business alongside his freelance legal work, and Meg, who has been part of the Vario community for five years, also runs a wine company and has completed a psychotherapy degree and established a private therapy practice.” 

The idea that lawyers can have the time to do more than one job and work in more than one sphere is liberating, and isn’t possible in the more traditional, office-centred pathway. It marks quite a change from the famed 18-hour days that have become part and parcel of the traditional training contract.

This, in turn, has an effect on the range of people that flexible work is attracting, which is highly diverse. Many have argued that flexible working is more accessible for working mothers, or perhaps those with mental-health problems who find working in office environments claustrophobic and stressful. Kay says that the Vario programme has been particularly attractive to those looking to return to work after a career break. 

“We have found work for people returning to work after a break for many different reasons. This can often be to raise a family, but there are many causes for people to take time out. We have placed people into assignments in a wide range of situations; from those looking to come back and complete a couple of days per week to start with, to those looking for more home-working, to those who want to work in more of an ad-hoc manner.” 

As more emphasis is placed on the importance of mental health in our society, working from home as much or as little as one feels able to will become a more and more attractive option to most young professionals looking to balance work and life. 

So what does the future hold? “As time progresses, I certainly think this way of working will continue to help diversity in the profession—certainly our bench of 600 lawyers is fairly evenly split between men and women.” It’s a good time to be a female lawyer in the UK—a recent survey contained in the Law Society’s Annual Statistics Report for 2017 shows that women comprise most of the working solicitors in England and Wales, for the first time ever. This report, coupled with Kay’s comments, bodes well for the future of gender equality in the legal world. 

However, flexible law isn’t just the ‘easy option’; flexible lawyers must hone skills that may not be expected of those on permanent contracts, and have to prove themselves as soon as they set foot in any new office. Generally, though, skills such as time management, efficiency and organisation, which would be vital to any lawyer, prove even more valuable for flexible lawyers. “The Varios each have different mechanisms for managing their time. Again, in part it comes down to picking the right people. We use a business psychologist to professionally assess people, as we seek those that are organised, efficient and self-motivated, among other attributes. The fact that they are well integrated into the clients means that they know the deadlines they are working to. We are talking about responsible people, so there’s an element of relying on them, to choose how they manage their time effectively, how they set their schedules and choose when to stop for the day. They know what they need to achieve, and they understand that their output needs to satisfy the needs of the client.” 

Furthermore, permanently being the new guy, or about to leave for yet another new environment, might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Fitting in with a new team or being one step removed from the action due to working from home comes with its own set of challenges. Is there any miscommunication between lawyers on the permanent team and the Varios drafted in to join projects? 

“Generally speaking, no. We operate in a global age; agile working is normal, teams will complete projects without ever sitting in the room together, people report to those based in different countries. There are a multitude of different ways to work. We live in a time when all modern organisations are operating this way. So people are used to their co-workers operating like this, whether it be as an employed colleague or a freelancer. Our freelancers merely fit into this system, which has arisen over the past 30 years or so.”

While the freelancer system is well-established, it comes with its own set of problems, particularly in the digital age. As more and more individuals use the internet to work from home in their own private space, does it run the risk of making the legal profession (as well as most other employees) increasingly isolated? 

“Flexible working and technology, which enables lawyers to work from home, is certainly a huge benefit, although it’s a double-edged sword—a sense of community is important, and people need to communicate and bounce ideas off each other. This is an issue we’ve recognised at Vario and we hold social events, as well as training sessions for our Varios as an excuse for them to all get together and meet their peers. Varios work from home, but many also work in-house on assignment or alongside Pinsent Masons lawyers in our offices, so there’s a variety of working options available.” This availability of options allows Varios to be both independent and connected to a wider whole.

To conclude, as the digital world continues to expand and evolve, more freelance working will become inevitable. It can only be a good thing that law shifts and adapts to the modern world; Kay’s Vario programme at Pinsent Masons demonstrates that flexible working is effective to clients, firms and lawyers alike.

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