Flexible working: how are in-house teams shaping up?

Legal obligations and changing attitudes to work have helped push flexible working over the past few years. Debbie Thomas examines the extent to which in-house legal teams have adopted flexible working, and how their experience of flexible working compares to private practice.

Sections 131132 of the UK’s Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a fundamental legal change in enabling all employees – and not only those caring for children under 17, or under 18 if disabled, or adult dependants – to exercise their right to request flexible working. Five years on from the introduction of that legislation, how has flexible working changed for in-house legal teams and for those in private practice firms?

Part of the answer may lie in a recent report produced by Timewise, a flexible working consultancy that produces an annual index of job adverts that offer flexible working. In Flexible Jobs Index 2019, the latest version of its annual report, Timewise notes that the percentage of flexible jobs at higher salaries (over £60K Full Time Equivalent) has trebled over the last four years, from five per cent to 15 per cent. Despite this upward trend, Timewise reports that when it comes to legal roles, there has been ‘no growth this year – a notable exception amongst professional roles.’

This may not be the full picture, however. For example, there are a growing number of law firms reporting that they offer flexible working: most Magic Circle firms provide details about the flexible working arrangements they offer on their websites. Some go far beyond the core provisions of the 2014 legislation. One Magic Circle firm offers a part-time equity scheme aimed at both men and women that enables them to adjust the amount of time they work while continuing to progress their career as an equity partner within an eight-year period. Another Magic Circle firm offers a scheme whereby former employees of the firm can take advantage of the opportunity to work as part of the firm’s team on specific projects, based on their skillset, with the option of working on such projects from home.

Ulrikke Weinreich Krogbeck, Vice Chair of the IBA Academic & Professional Development Committee, comments that ‘while the possibility to work flexible hours has been there for years, the culture of law firms has not always supported that way of working.’ She adds that ‘most law firms in Denmark give the possibility of flexible hours, which is necessary to retain talent.’

This point is echoed by Craig Wilson, a director at BCL Legal Recruitment, who affirms that top-tier firms are increasingly offering flexible working as a way of attracting and retaining hard-to-find talent. 

But how does flexible working differ for in-house legal staff? Wilson believes that ‘historically, in-house legal jobs were viewed by private practice lawyers as the only option for a better work/life balance’. In-house teams typically work alongside staff from a range of disciplines, and in some instances, where there is already an embedded culture of flexible working practices for all employees, such as in the public sector, flexible working is readily available.

The biggest provider of government legal services in the UK, the Government Legal Department (GLD), employs approximately 1,800 solicitors and barristers in its in-house legal teams. In-house lawyer roles within the GLD’s Corporate Law Group, for example, are offered with flexible working, including part-time or job-share roles. Other options available to in-house legal teams outside of corporate include flexi-time, compressed hours and alternative patterns of working, such as term-time working. All of these flexible working arrangements are in keeping with the employment terms available to civil servants outside of legal teams. 

But unlike private practice firms, the nature of the work of in-counsel can create the need to be visible within the workplace. Such teams work closely with internal stakeholders to whom they provide a service and it is expected that they will make themselves available to these stakeholders when needed, including during face-to-face meetings. Part of the work of such in-house teams will be to raise their profile internally by building relationships with stakeholders, and being physically present in the office is an important way to achieve this.

 

‘Not everybody is good at saying ‘stop’ and therefore ends up working much more than is needed or expected – having [not] aligned the expectations’

Ulrikke Weinreich Krogbeck, Vice Chair of the IBA Academic & Professional Development Committee

 

Despite this, Wilson maintains that in-house teams still manage to maintain a better worklife balance overall for two reasons: the concept of billing hours does not exist and because there are fewer commercial demands. He remarks that flexible working should not be confused with reduced working hours or reduced stress, as ‘because private practice solicitors who work flexibly still have billing targets, the need to meet deadlines is continuous and they’re still answerable to client and partner demands.’  

‘Not everybody is good at saying “stop” and therefore ends up working much more than is needed or expected – having [not] aligned the expectations,’ says Krogbeck. This, and ‘having a constant guilty conscience’, means private practice lawyers are working increasingly longer hours. Krogbeck highlights that a further issue for those working in private practice may also be that ‘the good assignments are given to the people who are “there” physically.’

In-house teams tend not face such pressures and so their work tends to take place within standard office hours; the need to work evenings or weekends does not exist. This is not to say that in-house teams experience no negative impacts on their flexible working. For example, GLD’s flexible working caveat is that business needs may limit the scope of the flexible working patterns that can be made available. For some in-house legal departments beyond the public sector, their size, structure, the nature of the work they do and the culture of the organisation will also dictate that particular organisation’s readiness to encourage flexible working beyond any statutory obligations.

Overall, the legal sector is undergoing change and traditional structures or ways of working are being disrupted. The emergence of law companies offering project-based work based on a flexible working model (using contracted-in teams) will change the market, as will affordable pricing models and value-based, rather than time-based, billing.

Alternative Legal Service Provider (ALSPs), many of which include law tech firms, have also entered the market. These external niche companies are providing high-demand legal services such as document, contract management, litigation support and discovery and electronic discovery which could ultimately, says Krogbeck, mean that ‘fewer people will be physically at the same location’.

What may turn out to be the biggest shift towards increased flexible working is already here: the gig economy. It is perhaps only a matter of time before it permeates working practices throughout the legal sector. ‘Society as such is changing and the gig/platform economy is growing. Young people want more control over their lives and do not want to work so much,’ believes Krogbeck.

 

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