Flexible work in the law: where are we now?

Lawyer workings on his tablet

In recent years, the legal profession has been disrupted in many ways. Technological innovations, disruptive billing models and the rise of NewLaw firms are only some of the changes that have accompanied the entry of the Millennial generation into the workforce.

As a result, the way people work is changing, and a new generation of lawyers is championing new work arrangements to improve work/life balance. As the advantages of flexible work start to outweigh the perceived associated risks, law firms need to adapt to remain competitive and to ensure that flexible work is implemented in a way that can benefit all.

A new way to work

The entry of the millennial generation in the workplace - who will comprise 75% of lawyers in ten years - has had many knock-on effects on both small and large businesses in recent years. With a swift shift in priorities for many millennial employees - who favour wellbeing and work/life over job security and long term employment prospects - law firms are now playing catch-up to ensure they can still attract and retain talent in this new market.

A practical way for employees to achieve better work/life balance is to have access to flexible arrangements within the organisations they work for. Not only has access to flexible to work arrangements become a key decision factor for job seekers, but it is increasingly becoming an option protected by law.

Under recent amendments to the Fair Work Act, employees have increased rights to request flexible work arrangements, such as flexible start and finishing times, part-time and job sharing arrangements and working from home. And although some have critiqued these changes, saying they would create further challenges for businesses, there is no escaping the growing trend towards flexible work arrangements. 

Australian law firms are not immune to this wave of change as attracting and retaining talented lawyers remains one of the biggest organisational challenges. Together with recent technological innovations, these new work practices are profoundly disrupting the profession's long-standing status-quo. With the emergence of freelance marketplaces and NewLaw providers, both large and small firms are being forced to re-evaluate their current work culture to provide more attractive alternatives.

The 2018 ALPM Salary Survey showed that over 84% of law firms offer flexible work conditions, making these arrangements more accessible to lawyers than ever before. A survey conducted by the Australian Financial Review also showed that some big law firms, such as JWS, were leading the way with almost a quarter of their partners working in part-time or flexible work arrangements.

Disparities remain

In many cases, it appears the legal industry is still playing catch-up. Although flexible work is now theoretically more accessible to lawyers, the country's largest firms are still lagging. While most law firms offer flexible work conditions, a recent survey of Australian lawyers revealed that only 6% of lawyers had a formal flexible work arrangement, while only 16% worked part-time.

In some ways, the legal profession is still beholden to a traditional concept of what being 'successful' means. Rigid hierarchy, long-hours culture and relentless billable hours targets remain a reality in many law firms. So although many lawyers may aspire to work more flexibly, the expectations of their workplace may be a strong deterrent to requesting these arrangements - especially for junior lawyers.

"Despite over 84% of law firms offerings
flexible work conditions, only 6% of lawyers
had a formal flexible work arrangement,
while only 16% worked part-time"

Professional parents are not the only ones interested in gaining more flexibility; for example, baby boomers are increasingly motivated to reduce their work hours or work from home for wellbeing and quality of life reasons. However, childcare responsibilities are the primary drivers for professionals under 50 years old requesting flexible work arrangements.

Although flexible work is not just aimed at working mothers, the reality of motherhood means these two issues are intrinsically linked. Any resistance to implementing and supporting flexible work arrangements has drastic consequences for female lawyers. It starts with the fear associated with the perception of motherhood, which often leads women to compromise their maternity leave entitlements to maintain their career aspirations. There is also a widespread - and unspoken - expectation that parents should be available as if they did not have children. So despite an apparent global effort to support professional parents in law firms, the reality of the gendered expectations of parents and law firm culture often leads to tension for female lawyers seeking to pursue a career while raising children.

Where to next?

Despite some structural and cultural barriers, flexible work is not only gaining visibility but is also now moving to the forefront of many law firm's HR priorities.

As NewLaw firms continue to disrupt the profession and provide a viable alternative for lawyers looking to progress their careers and work more flexibly, traditional firms have no choice but to evolve. And the proven benefits of flexible work are starting to outweigh reluctance to change.

Notably, some BigLaw firms are now doing more than showing good-will by researching, trialling and implementing real solutions. For example, a big step in making flexible work more widely acceptable is to start working to remove the gender bias associated with parenthood. The recent announcements of Baker McKenzie and Kelley Drye & Warren to offer gender-equal parental leave from June 2019 are sending a powerful message to other BigLaw firms and to the legal profession as a whole.

Lawyers - and other professionals - are now also able to more easily access information regarding their rights and are being given the tools to make flexible work a reality in their own workplaces. New platforms, such as the excellent podcasts "Happy Lawyer, Happy Life" or "Managing The Juggle", are also giving this conversation a larger audience and breaking down the cultural taboos that still affect our collective psyche.

 "A big step in making flexible work more
widely acceptable is to start working to remove
the gender bias associated with parenthood."

As the legal profession takes a more mature approach to flexible work, it is essential to recognise that there is no such thing as one size fits all. Law firms and companies must be able to assess the specific needs of their workforce, understand their employees’ drivers for flexible work and recognise that these might vary even within an organisation or even within a team.

Similarly, the stage of an employee’s career may also have a significant impact on how flexible arrangements can be implemented, and how this might impact the intergenerational relationships within a firm or legal department. Professor Margaret Thornton, who has done extensive research on the matter and recently published a course on this topic for LawCPD, notes that while "[s]enior and experienced lawyers can live by the beach and work on line without supervision...junior lawyers don’t have that freedom.”


Learn more about the current realities of flexible work in the legal profession, and get an understanding on how factors such as technology and firm culture are shaping the future of flexible work arrangements in our latest online CPD course “Flexible Work in the Legal Profession”.

Learn more

Lawyer working on tablet next to daughter