Nicola Darfoor, corporate communications manager at the Law Society, speaks to members at law firms about their experience of flexible working
We asked leaders and innovators at law firms to share their insights into how to make flexible working a success. Sometimes this was initiated by changing life circumstances, while in other cases, law firms were proactive in thinking about how work can be allocated flexibly and outside a central office.
Firms that want to experiment for themselves will want to know, firstly, what kind of work is best done where and, secondly, how to reassure clients that this will not impact service.
Our case study provides actionable ideas for building a more engaged and productive team of lawyers who follow flexible working strategies while still delivering top-quality work and client care.
“Choose where you work, when you work, as long as you’re fulfilling the needs of your role”
It’s not hard to think of situations where people have got responsibilities outside of work: whether this is caring for children or relatives, or other personal needs.
As a responsible business, Irwin Mitchell recognised that this was an increasing priority for our colleagues and following extensive colleague research which expressed a preference for hybrid working, we devised our ‘Flexible by Choice’ model.
Our founding principles were that our 3,000 colleagues can choose where they work, when they work – if they are fulfilling the needs of their role.
We needed to ensure that our clients’ needs are being met, but also accept that this looks very different for each part of our organisation. Onboarding, for example, may be better done in an office, and some people may still want some time in a dedicated workspace.
But one thing we’ve already found is this model helps normalise some of the quandaries that many of us have battled with for years.
Those moments where you might think: “I have a child’s assembly this afternoon but the meeting I have finishes at 2pm and I will not make it back in time.”
This sort of way of working enables that discussion and opens the door for other issues too, like our new policy on menopausal and perimenopausal leave.
The popularity of the framework has continued. In our annual engagement survey in September 2022, three-quarters of colleagues said that since it was introduced, they were more in control of their working weeks and felt trusted by management to perform in their roles.
“What should matter is that the work is being done and clients are being given the best service”
I had four years’ post-qualification experience (PQE) when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Going through my own experience with disability was life-changing but it has shown myself and others just how determined and resourceful I can be.
As well as receiving support from Irwin Mitchell, I also reached out to the Disabled Solicitors Network (DSN). I found their guidance and peer-support invaluable and I’m now a DSN committee member providing support to others.
At one point I didn’t know whether I would even be able to return to full-time work. But practical measures such as flexibility in my working hours and ad-hoc home working have enabled me to manage my health condition, progress in my career and be promoted to a more senior position. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the accommodations in place.
Flexibility in my hours also enables me to spend quality time with my daughter, and so works for me both as a disabled person and as a parent. Flexible working is advantageous across the board, regardless of a person’s particular circumstances. What should matter is that the work is being done and clients are being given the best service.
People are much more efficient and content when there is an element of adaptability and they can work in the way that best suits them. When it comes to putting appropriate working structures in place, the individual concerned should be front and centre of any decision-making as they are the expert in their medical condition and what working practices suit them best.
However, employers have an equally important role in providing support and putting the appropriate adjustments in place. Ultimately, there should be a collaborative approach in working out what’s best for the individual in terms of core working hours and other support.
As a starting point, I would recommend that firms read the DSN’s easy wins and action points for disability inclusion guide, which provides useful information and resources.
“Working in this way really benefited my personal life”
I started working in a more agile way back in 2018 when I had a stress fracture in my heel. This is when I discovered that working in this way really benefited my personal life as I was able to spend more time with my children and better support my wife.
My wife and I are clear but flexible when discussing our respective workloads and this has been crucial to making both our careers work while raising a family. My advice to anyone who was thinking of asking for more flexibility is that you should do it, and not to worry it will make you seem unambitious.
Law firms have heavily invested in technology over the past few years and are now better connected than ever, which makes agile working even smoother for all.
At Foot Anstey, we have been adapting and evolving where and how we work. As a firm, we are exploring innovative ways of working that deliver a high level of productivity and client service, whilst offering exceptional flexibility and employee freedom.
We want to continue to explore how we can deliver for our people and our clients by thinking outside of the box when it comes to agile working. Agile working is here to stay and I am excited to see what the new way of working will evolve into.
“Be transparent about the benefits and your expectations”
We were already experimenting with flexible working just as COVID-19 hit. Some employees worked at home part of the time but more generally Alice, our CEO, led by example, alternating her days, and giving anyone the confidence to decide to work from home if they needed.
This is now a more structured policy that gives people the ability to work remotely and decide whether different hours or short-term leave is the best way to handle a doctor’s appointment or caregiving.
The important thing is to be supportive and engage with the needs of your team.
If you want to roll out a similar scheme in your firm, then you need to be transparent about why you’re looking to introduce flexible working, the benefits that it has and what your expectations are.
We still track hours spent, so there’s an agreement on what constitutes core working hours but also the understanding that how these hours are spent can be broken up across any given day.
This can be as simple as telling your manager you need to leave your desk for an hour and putting up an out-of-office notice. That way, we manage continuity of client care while also keeping our staff supported and engaged.
Our staff surveys regularly show this is valued by our employees and, on the occasions where we hold in-person events, we will cover accommodation and travel costs so people working outside Bristol are able to engage and travel to us from wherever they are based.