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Almost two-thirds of the UK’s lawyers now want to work flexible hours

Almost two-thirds of the UK’s lawyers now want to work flexible hours compared with less than a quarter before the Covid pandemic.

Newly published research by Thomson Reuters shows that 63% of lawyers would prefer to work hours of their choosing, while in pre-coronavirus days only 22% indicated a preference for flexibility.

The study also finds that lawyers want to work an average of 2.1 days a week at home whereas before the onset of Covid-19 the corresponding figure was half a day.

A significant number (15%) now want to move to part-time work, a four percentage point rise on the proportion pre-pandemic. Appetite for part-time work was highest among older lawyers and female lawyers.

The findings indicate that only one in 10 lawyers now want to go back to working regular hours, in the office, five days a week.

Thomson Reuters’ survey drew on data from nearly 2,500 lawyers shows the desire for arrangements such as flexible hours, working from home and part-time work has doubled or even tripled in some regions.

Its authors contend that the results present major challenges for law firms’ plans for return-to-office and how that could impact lawyer satisfaction, retention and recruiting and more.

Lucy Leach, technical research manager at Thomson Reuters said: “Since the pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in popularity in flexible hours, remote working and part-time work. Lawyers aren’t shying away from long hours, averaging nearly 10 hours per day, but they want to work when they want to, fitting life into work.”

The research authors say that most lawyers want to adopt hybrid remote and office schedules, but this was on an individual basis. So some lawyers wanted to work for five days a week in the office and others sought to work at home every day. To keep the majority of people happy, people need to set their own schedules, rather than be dictated to as to what the balance should be, says the study.

Client boundaries

Further findings from Thomson Reuters reveal that half of lawyers (49%) feel there should not be any boundaries set with clients and that clients should have 24/7 access to their lawyers with 5% feeling that clients are reasonable so boundaries don’t need to be set.

Some lawyers, however, want some parameters set around their availability; periods when they didn’t feel they had to check emails on a regular basis with 23% wanting restricted hours during the week and 13% not contactable at all at weekends.

A quarter say they are unable to discuss boundaries with their clients, but 39% feel they can with all clients and 37% say they can with some.

The researchers also asked lawyers about what positive experiences they have had working during the pandemic. A previous study had shown that collaboration, business development and developing junior lawyers were perceived to be challenges in the earlier phases of the pandemic. But effective communication, reduced formality – which has benefited relationships with clients and colleagues – and the deliberate involvement of juniors are all now seen as success stories.

Challenges of flexible working

The challenges and benefits of increased flexible and hybrid working are still being debated by the leaders of professional services firms, with senior partner and chairman of PwC UK, Kevin Ellis, the latest figure to voice doubts, after leaders at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. Ellis has said that staff need to be in the office or with clients for three days a week or they risked “blighting” their careers, adding “I have been very open. I am not telling people to come in. But you need to observe, to network and to socialise. That’s why the office is so important.

“When you are making a judgment, it is helpful to get input from other people. It is much easier to get their peripheral vision if they are in the room.”

He also questioned the idea that hybrid work would lead to a less hierarchical and flatter working style: “Covid has increased the hierarchy massively. When I am working from home, no junior people ever speak to me but they do at work.”

However, PwC’s hybrid working policy, based on consultation with employees, does allow staff to carry on working from home – but they should spend between 40 and 60% of their time in PwC offices or with clients.

Other major financial and professional services organisations have moved forward with hybrid and flexible working more enthusiastically, among them Deloitte, Standard Chartered, Nomura, NatWest, BNP and UBS.

Responding to the Thomson Reuters survey findings, Joanna Whymark, senior associate at RPC, a specialist in the insurance sector, said: “A compulsory five-day week working in the office was already on the wane prior to the pandemic, with many firms introducing agile working policies (for example, working from home one day a week) in addition to flexible working requests.”

“However Covid galvanised the rollout of technological advancement across law firms and the courts which has seen the legal industry not only survive but thrive during a prolonged period of remote working. Trust in employees to work effectively away from the office full-time has led to sustained levels of productivity and even enhanced levels of profitability over an extended period.

“Against this backdrop, a return to a compulsory five-day working week in the office will be difficult for law firms to justify, or enforce. Accordingly, most firms are taking a balanced approach to a workforce returning to the office.”

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