In the war for talent, law firms realise that they need to offer some flexibility to their staff if they want to attract and retain the best people. They also see that employees’ lives outside of work can have an impact on job performance and that they need to make some provision accordingly.

Various policies have been put in place, with firms keen to rise to the challenge, but there is a big difference in what is on offer. While many firms allow some working from home, one of the main facets of work/life balance, the approach varies from allowing one set day a fortnight to an ‘as-and-when-needed’ policy based on trust. In some firms, this flexibility is offered to just fee-earners, while other firms offer flexible working right across the business.

Allen & Overy, a finalist in the American Express Best Flexible Working Initiative Award 2016, introduced the A&O iFlex initiative in June 2015, which allows anyone to work at home or from another location. There is no limit to the number of days per month that people can work remotely, people do not need to ask permission and they make their own judgement as to what is appropriate.

Technology is clearly critical here, ensuring employees have devices that allow them to work remotely and securely. But crucially there needs to be a culture in place where people feel they can work flexibly without it impacting colleagues or career prospects. Often this will come with critical mass – the more people who work flexibly, the more accepted it becomes. Nearly a third of staff at Sacker & Partners, for instance, work flexibly - 40% of partners, 30% of associates and 29% of business services staff. This feeds a positive perception of flexible working that then promotes adoption. Allen & Overy also found that 91% of the firm’s lawyers feel that they are able to work flexibly, up from 78% in 2014 before iFlex was introduced.

Flexible working has big advantages for staff, but businesses also stand to benefit in areas such as improving retention rates. Pinsent Masons’ 'core hours' programme was introduced into its corporate team to give lawyers the flexibility to come into the office from 10am and leave from 4pm provided client expectations are met. Staff turnover reduced from 30.2% at the time of introduction in April 2014 to 17.5% by June 2015.

In terms of attracting talent, it can also become a key differentiator. For Simmons & Simmons, offering flexible working arrangements has become a big part of its recruitment strategy. It acknowledges that flexibility can be a major factor for candidates in where they want to work and encourages them to discuss their needs at the outset. Flexible working, the firm says, raises morale and improves retention.

Beyond flexibility

 

Flexible working is only part of the equation in addressing the issue of work/life balance, however. Firms are adding in other initiatives designed to help staff better manage their lives. These include the likes of mentoring schemes for parents and those involved in elder care, as well as emergency childcare provision.

Pinsent Masons, winner of the 2016 Centrica Best for Modern Families Award, has a web coaching portal for those taking family leave and Ageing Works, a resource for those caring for elderly relatives. Some 24% of its workforce now works flexibly. 

Hogan Lovells, which is in the top 30 list of Employers for Working Families 2016, has a Working Families Network, covering a wide range of topics such as supporting children with exams, and runs quarterly networking sessions for new and expectant parents. The firm also offers emergency childcare and elder care services. 

It’s initiatives like these that deliver long-term results. Sacker & Partners has, for instance, seen impressive results from its efforts, with all of its lawyers who have taken maternity leave in the past five years returning to work. Not surprisingly, perhaps, 60% of its partners are female, the majority of whom are mothers.

The firm also stresses that a number of its staff work flexibly in order to observe different faiths. This is an important area to note – flexible working should not be seen as the preserve of working mothers. To do so risks creating divisions in a business if one group is seen as being treated differently to the rest. Benefits need to extend to all.

Joined-up thinking

 

While law firms are becoming more flexible, and progress is being made, some are clearly going the extra mile by taking a broad view of staff wellbeing at all levels. It will be interesting to measure the effectiveness of such policies going forwards.

There also needs to be more emphasis on communication as there can be a disconnect between what a firm believes and how its staff feel. According to a recent Flexible Working Report, 35% of UK lawyers would not feel comfortable talking to their employer about flexible working [compared to a UK average of 28%]. However, when legal practices were asked the same question, 89% claimed that staff would feel comfortable approaching them for information on flexible working. More broadly, the report found that 81% of people actively look for flexible working options in prospective employers.

Those that can show that they understand and respect personal lives will have the advantage in attracting and retaining talent. Those that pay only lip service to it, or are unable to prove the value of their policies with the metrics, risk falling behind in the race for the best people for the job.

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