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The rise of work-life balance in Legal

15 May 2018

Lawyers work famously long hours. But is a change underway?

The Legal profession is well-known for being challenging, with long hours standard across the competitive industry. Indeed, Partners at law firms are actually working longer and longer hours- up to 263 hours more a year than they did in 2014- whilst employees at top law companies regularly work weeks totalling 48 hours or more. Despite excellent pay rates, many Lawyers are finding themselves increasingly stretched for time, especially in many Magic Circle firms. 

Given that the average person can only perform three to five hours of high-quality, high-concentration ‘deep work’ at a time, and that a study by the Economist shows that working more than 50 hours a week diminishes your output to a tiny fraction of its normal levels, perhaps it’s time for a change. 

And change is coming, as the Legal industry is now starting to wake up to the potential benefits that a healthy work-life balance can give everybody from Partners to Brokers. Senior staff in Legal firms all over the country are now waking up to the importance of implementing more flexible working policies, both for themselves and for their staff, designed to give their Lawyers a well-earned break. 

But what’s behind the change?

Destressing the workforce

Working in law is demanding, especially for people higher up the ladder: indeed, 96% of solicitors say that they experience negative stress, and 19% say that stress is ‘extreme’. Lawyer burnout can be a real problem for many law firms - and can lead to more problems related to productivity - with Lawyers saying that this stress causes mistakes that could otherwise have been avoided. In extreme cases, stress can cut short the careers of talented Lawyers, and this is something that many law firms are becoming increasingly keen to avoid- especially at senior level, where many Lawyers and Partners find themselves trying to juggle their own workload with managing and mentoring their team of overworked junior Lawyers.

To combat this, half of the UK’s top law firms offer counselling services, as well as convenience services such as free dry-cleaning. Indeed, Slaughter & May even recently appointed a concierge to help Lawyers out with domestic duties, such as booking holidays, waiting for repairmen and even emergency childcare- to help Lawyers juggle their busy schedules.

More law firms are starting to take a proactive response on wellbeing to attract and retain staff, particularly senior Lawyers who are most at risk of burnout. Now, employee benefits are coming into the spotlight, with agile working becoming more widespread in City firms. Increasingly, quality time is being considered more valuable than money or status, and this approach, while not for everybody, is having a marked difference in the way management deals with their employees- especially given that multiple studies have shown that giving your staff the freedom to work more flexible hours results in increased productivity, fewer sick days and higher job satisfaction.

The result? An increased focus on work-life balance. 

How is the Legal market changing?

For established senior Lawyers who want to break away from their punishing work schedules, flexible working in particular is becoming much more popular. Whilst working for In-House Legal teams has always been an option for Lawyers who value work-life balance above their salary, the rise of start-up Alternative Legal Service Providers in the market is providing a new way for many attorneys to capitalise on their Legal experience whilst also retaining some control of the hours that they spend in the office. Meanwhile, traditional law firms like McCarthy Denning are trialling flexible and agile working, whilst one of Fieldfisher’s main selling points in attracting talented staff is its excellent work-life balance. 

Many City law firms are also introducing new ways of mining the experience that their Lawyers have accrued over a long career, with London-based employment law firm Lewis Silkin creating new services like Rockhopper, a low-cost Legal service that is run by Lawyers who are paid less, but can enjoy a better work-life balance than their peers. It has been extremely popular, as has Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy’s initiative Peerpoint. Similar is Pinsent Masons’ Vario, which lets Lawyers sign up to month-long ‘projects’, where they can work for clients or assist fellow associates working on deals. After the project is over, Lawyers can choose to either apply for another project, or take a break from work, giving senior and experienced Associates more free time, and giving clients a cheaper deal into the bargain. 

Needless to say, this approach is starting to disrupt the traditional structure of the Legal market: rather than commit to the steady march from trainee to eventual Partner, many Lawyers are choosing to work on a variety of different projects on a commission or contract basis. Now, top-tier law firms are seeing their market share encroached on by these ‘contracted’ Lawyers, who are doing the same work more cheaply, as well as attracting many of their best Lawyers; many of them are setting up their own consultancy models to compete with them as a result. 

Find your ideal work-life balance with IDEX

The modern concept of work-life balance is, slowly but surely, changing life for everybody from Senior Associates to those in General Counsel. Although many firms continue to enforce strict working hours, others are starting to adapt and diversify the way in which they expect their employees to contribute, giving their staff more opportunities than ever to diversify their careers at senior level. With this trend looking to expand in the future, it’s time to get smart- and work smarter.

At IDEX Consulting, we work hard to ensure we match our candidates with jobs they’ll enjoy and thrive in. Take a look at our Legal vacancies here, or find out more about what we do within the Legal sector here.

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