Without much choice, the legal industry got flexible last year. Even firms that snubbed working from home pre-pandemic had to get on board. Through the lens of recruitment, this has laid bare the realities of law firm life – without the fancy offices, wining and dining and team camaraderie, associates have reflected on the core of their job and what they get in return for mounting workloads and blurring lines between work and home. Many are questioning whether their firm is all it is cracked up to be.
Now, as the industry readies itself for a return to offices, firms can no longer turn a blind eye to the needs and wants of associates. They must make bold decisions, which may well be seen as radical, in order to retain and recruit the best young talent.
It is no secret that this generation wants flexibility, but this doesn’t always have to mean working from home; it can also be flexible hours or working certain portions of the year overseas. In fact, this juncture could be a real opportunity to play with new ideas for achieving greater flexibility in our historically desk-based model.
What is also clear is that this generation has proved it can work successfully from home. Faced with a national lockdown almost overnight, young lawyers stepped up, adjusted and worked even harder to deliver for partners. Any issues with remote working were soon ironed out. Why then, after more than 12 months of this model, are firms unwilling to relinquish a little control?
Partnerships that pull down the shutters and fail to have an honest conversation with associates will see their brand suffer. If firms don’t come up with a new model, young lawyers will see what others are doing and think ‘why isn’t my firm doing that?’. Freshfields, Norton Rose Fulbright and Taylor Wessing have all publicly committed to allowing their lawyers to spend up to 50% of the week at home, and flexibility is commonplace stateside with Kirkland & Ellis buying new laptops for home-based juniors and White & Case offering agile working since 2016.
Sticking to the ‘bums on seats’ model will see resentment quickly build – particularly if partners are already damaging juniors’ mental health with shouty briefings and midnight calls. Will an associate really stay in this office culture for 50 hours a week if firms around the corner are embracing the flexible revolution? Those who drag their feet and stick with the pre-pandemic status quo will see associates jump ship; they are already doing so.
An open mind to flexible working is also increasingly crucial in tackling the industry’s mental health crisis. Removing long commutes can ease daily pressure and a remote structure allows people to work in calmer environments and remove themselves from potentially toxic cultures. Associates’ eyes have been opened to this and they are now demanding flexibility post-lockdown to protect their mental health.
In the long run, although uncommon at the moment, part-time roles or job shares could go a long way in supporting mental health. Might this even prompt the profession to look at ways it could reconfigure the billable hours system? Reducing the onus placed on target hours could alleviate pressure that often causes mental health to deteriorate.
Policy must create change. Take a look at the evolution of diversity and inclusion policy and you see how clients pushing back made firms more accountable for the make-up of their teams. We are approaching this point with billable hours and mental health – will clients continue to use firms who work juniors into the ground? Delivering for clients in a timely fashion is a given, but it doesn’t mean that firms cannot think outside of the traditional box and consider alternative ways of doing things.
Flexible working policies, which enshrine mental health support, are no longer just nice-to-haves. Change is afoot, but which firms will be remembered as the trailblazers and which will bring up the rear? Take a look at where associates congregate and you’ll quickly see. Armed with a greater appreciation of remote working, younger lawyers are becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for a little consideration of their mental health; it will be the firms with the foresight to listen that snap up and retain the best talent.