“If you allow people to work within the confines and the contexts that best suit them, you’re going to be able to get the most out of those individuals”
— Karen Finch, Legally Yours
LOD — Lawyers On Demand managing director Paul Cowling argues “[law] doesn’t have to be done the way it’s always been done”.
This appears to be a commonly-held sentiment when it comes to practicing law in a flexible fashion. The Australian legal profession is increasingly cognisant of its place in the modern professional world and is fast appreciating not only the need to appropriately accommodate for and cater to its staff, to not only retain the best talent, but also allow them to flourish.
Low retention rates in law make this issue especially pertinent, Legally Yours chief executive and co-founder Karen Finch says, and by “not understanding that we have to take care”, the profession is allowing brilliant minds to go elsewhere.
“Lawyers aren’t machines. We’re human beings, and like all humans, we need to be well-rounded and tailored to,” she muses.
Lawyers Weekly spoke with senior legal professionals whose businesses both foster and encourage flexible working and view it as the future of legal practice: Mr Cowling, as managing director, is responsible for the management and leadership of LOD’s business operations; Ms Finch, who is motivated as a female leader to help women lawyers practice while being able to care for their children; and Clarence Professional Group general manager Jennifer Miller and head of chambers Rose Dravitzki, whose organisation provides modern office space and small business support for lawyers and barristers seeking autonomy and freedom in their individual working habits.
Together, these professionals paint a picture of what the future of legal practice can — and, for many, will — look like, and why the legal institutions must meet individual practitioners halfway when it comes to accommodating idiosyncratic needs.
What do we mean by flexible legal practice?
“[Flexible working in law] is the ability to balance the client’s requirements and the individual lawyer’s requirements,” espouses Mr Cowling, who manages the alternate legal service provider LOD – Lawyers On Demand , which “fuses high-quality work with greater freedom” for hundreds of lawyers and legal consultants around the globe.
“It means looking at the nature of the assignment and what the client is looking for, considering how that can most effectively be resourced.”
It doesn’t mean, he says, proposing “free-for-all” work where people just work whenever and however they want without any structure.
“It refers to a structured flexibility, where you’ve got to meet the reality of client demands while working in ways that suit you. From our perspective, it’s a long-term career path.”
Having options encapsulates the attraction of flexible working for someone such as Ms Finch, whose business pitches as a legal marketplace that matches clients to lawyers who provide services on a fixed-fee basis in accordance with the type of legal advice being sought.
One of the reasons that Legally Yours was founded, she explains, is that there were too many women leaving the profession to go on maternity leave, and then not being able to successfully or effectively return to law firms.
“They might have gone down to part-time, but they would still be having to do full-time hours, leading them to feel that there was no option but to leave law and go into something else,” she explains.
“What we wanted to do was offer women options to stay in. We [as women] have children, but our minds and our legal knowledge doesn’t change.”
Such working arrangements don’t appear to be a fad, either. Mr Cowling notes that flexible working is about long-term planning, both for individuals and institutions.
“Organisations, including ours, need to fully support people working in those ways for the longer term,” he says. “It certainly doesn’t — or shouldn’t — hold people back from career progression moving forward.”
Autonomy and freedom to work and grow
Not only do flexible options provide personal incentives for individual lawyers, but there are also professional imperatives for businesses, Ms Finch argues.
“If you allow people to work within the confines and the contexts that best suit them, you’re going to be able to get the most out of those individuals,” she says.
Having flexibility, Ms Miller adds, allows lawyers to offer their best professional selves, something she has seen in the over-300 professionals who operate with Clarence.
“It is important for employers to be offering flexible working arrangements because their clients demand flexible working arrangements … technology has meant that we are all contactable 24/7,” she argues. “In our ‘on demand’ lives, we demand more and more, and need to be able to give more as a result. Flexibility in the workplace allows us to do that.”
And, by doing so, lawyers have a greater capacity to thrive and grow, she surmised.
“If we were to assume that flexible working encompasses flexible billing, a lawyer now has an opportunity to charge based on value,” she says.
“Complex transactions can be charged on the value of the deal, instead of billable hours and fixed rate billing may bring in more regular work, allowing a lawyer to thrive and grow and invest in the business.”
Flexibility helps, rather than hinders, women’s progression
For Ms Miller, flexibility for mothers with young families to juggle work and home life hits close to home.
“Often, when working women become mothers, their careers stall or even come to a grinding halt,” she says.
“Lawyers who work for themselves — with the support of a solicitor’s chambers or a virtual office solution — can keep the same phone number, address and support team to maintain their practice while also caring for young families.”
“Having the flexibility to work from home enables them to continue to service their clients and develop their business while reducing their costs and working hours,” she surmises.
Ms Miller often sees new mothers , who may work for a traditional firm or legal organisation that doesn’t offer flexibility, feel the need to leave and work for an employer that does.
Either this, or those women lawyers will go to work for themselves, as they will be better able to flourish in more accommodating circumstances, she notes.
This has been Ms Finch’s experience. Having had four children herself, she says she is a much more grounded and compassionate person in the workplace, which not only means she can better serve her clients but can be more empathetic to the idiosyncratic needs of her staff.
“We need to be able to harness and understand women’s situations. Often, they will be the ones that are telephoned when the children are sick, and that needs to be accounted for,” she says.
There has, historically, been a fear of women in the workforce, she argues; that once a woman has had a child she won’t be able to progress to the next level of seniority, or that she won’t be able to give 100 per cent to her work.
But Ms Finch argues that, on the contrary, young parents are instead a “gold mine” of productivity and efficiency.
“You know what your time constraints are and what you need to be doing. Mums in particular are much better with time management because we spend our time wisely knowing that we’ve got other responsibilities that have to be attended to with the kids or elsewhere.”
And, this extends to fathers as well, she adds, a note which is supported by Mr Cowling.
“Both men and women increasingly have responsibilities for families outside of work. Flexibility must be afforded across the board for both genders which, thankfully, is becoming pretty embedded in the legal profession,” he reflects.
“There’s still work to be done across the board, but it’s absolutely critical that the workforce is fully supported in that regard. Career paths should not be limited in any way, shape or form.”
Flexibility aiding health and wellbeing
For Mr Cowling, flexible working and optimal wellness are inextricably linked.
“We have a professional and social responsibility as employers within the legal profession to ensure the wellbeing of our staff, and one way we can do that is ensuring that we have a workforce that is commercially appropriate but also flexible and sensitive to people’s needs,” he espouses.
Ms Finch also submits that flexible working benefits the wellbeing of individual professionals in that it allows them to better tap into and leverage their ingrained personality traits and legal skills.
“Working virtually and flexibly will take huge organisational skills, which I think most lawyers are capable of. They need to be organised, have clear goals set out, clear expectations and deliverables”
— Karen Finch, Legally Yours
The majority of legal professionals are “type-A personalities”, she notes, and that while lawyers are, generally speaking, quite organised, the rigidity of the 9-to-5 may not suit everyone. As such, it is incumbent upon those individuals — and the institutions they may work for — to find ways through which their underlying preferences can be accommodated, which will bolster their holistic wellness.
“Working virtually and flexibly will take huge organisational skills, which I think most lawyers are capable of. They need to be organised, have clear goals set out, clear expectations and deliverables,” she outlines.
“And, once you’ve got those, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it at 10:00pm at night or 2:00pm in the afternoon.”
For Ms Dravitzki, optimal well-being depends on the types of pressure that a legal professional is facing.
“The billable hour is terrible for a lawyer’s wellbeing,” she declares.
“Whereas working flexibly or in one’s own practice allows lawyers to operate on a fixed-day basis, or an hourly rate, and they can do whatever they like in that sense.”
And, if lawyers choose to work flexibly in co-working spaces — such as those operated by Clarence — collegiality can go a long way in supporting one’s social and emotional needs, she adds.
“Just being able to talk to other practitioners or small firms that might form part of a co-working community can really help with wellbeing,” she says.
“They don’t feel isolated, whereas if you’re practicing from home — which I’ve done before — it can sometimes feel rather isolating.”
It is incredibly heartwarming, Ms Dravitzki points out, to see fellow lawyers interacting while undertaking flexible working arrangements.
“It’s just so nice to see them in each other’s offices … they really do spend a lot of time talking to each other,” she recounts.
“It’s great to have that opportunity to bounce ideas around … there’s high rates of depression in the legal industry and being around other people can help.”
Overcoming concerns about isolation
Arguably the most commonly-known and utilised form of flexible working is the ability to work from home. As numerous working parents can attest, including Ms Finch, being able to operate a home-based office in order to take care of the kids is an invaluable option allowing one to get the best of both worlds.
But while flexible working options such as this necessarily or consequently involve being alone — and many lawyers can indeed thrive in such an environment — there is wisdom in retaining some semblance of community and interpersonal interaction, Ms Miller posits.
“To be surrounded by like-minded peers will give your practice a better chance of success,” she says.
“If a sole practitioner works from home, they can feel very isolated unless they know they can come to the ‘office’ for networking events or Friday night drinks, just like a permanent on-site office employee.”
An appropriate balance is therefore required to be struck, she notes, between the need or desire to operate alone according to one’s obligations, and the benefit of collegiality.
Mr Cowling says responsibility to avoid isolation should be borne by both the employer and employee, in ensuring a high level of engagement whenever one is working remotely.
“There is responsibility for both the lawyer and the organisation to ensure that structure is set up in such a way that the lawyer does not risk feeling that they’ve not got enough facetime with colleagues and clients, and there are practical ways of dealing with that,” he says.
“But, communications now allow [for greater interaction] and so I don’t really see isolation as an issue.”
In addition to the advent of technology, there are other trade-offs to combat any sense of isolation that individuals may feel, according to Ms Finch, such as being able to be more available to one’s family.
“There is definitely a trade-off, and sometimes it is very hard to separate the two,” she said. “For anyone, it is about setting productivity targets and having output goals.”
Responsibility of managers to accommodate
With so many proposed benefits to the practice of flexible working, it is clear — in the eyes of our interviewees — that employers have a duty and obligation to cater to the individual needs of legal professionals in order to get the most out of them.
“I think that when somebody wants to make a change, and they need flexibility, they absolutely should have the right infrastructure and the right support behind them,” Ms Miller asserts.
However, it is a balancing act, Mr Cowling notes, because the reality is that any law firm, or sole practitioner, has obligations to clients that must be delivered on.
“But, at the same time, in assessing what those requirements are, there is no reason why a law firm shouldn’t be able to structure a team with different elements to be supported and deliver for the client,” he says.
“We’ve got a responsibility as managers and supervisors to support people’s lives outside of their professional existence, because — in our experience — it doesn’t effect the level of engagement or productivity.”
Futher, there is an argument to be made that providing such support for flexibility has flow-on effects for clients, which has been the case in Mr Cowling’s experience.
“The feedback we’ve had about engagement and productivity [for our lawyers who work flexibly] is sky-high. The market is more and more aligned in recognising that what matters is productivity, efficiency, quality and output,” he mused.
“Because those lawyers have the support of the organisation for their lives outside of the office, whether it’s limited days or hours or remote work, they’re coming in and producing high-calibre work with very high levels of engagement.”
Ms Finch views managerial responsibility through the lens of her own experience, and what her duty is to those coming through the ranks.
Growing up, she was part of the generation of women who were told, from an early age, that they could do anything. Now, in a position of authority herself, she sees her role as being one where she imbibes the notion that women can indeed do everything, but not everything can be done at once.
“We need to support each other through those times when we are achieving on our career, but also when we have to take a step back to look at our family responsibilities. To know that when we re-enter, there’s still those opportunities there,” she proclaims.
“As a female CEO, I feel strongly that we need to address balancing. There has historically been a view that once women have children, they can’t go into leadership roles, but if we allow them flexibility to get the job done, recognising that there are other obligations at hand as well, then they can still be seen as a real strength [for the business].”
As a businesswoman who managed four children in three-and-a-half years, Ms Finch says her “time management and organisation skills are second to none”, and employers must acknowledge the value that is brought by women in similar circumstances.
“If I can get through that, I can get through anything in my professional life. We just have to flip [our thinking] in not seeing [maternal duties] as a career break or stop,” she notes.
“To me, that was just a career progression, enabling me to learn some amazing skills that I’m now translating back into business, and now it’s absolutely my responsibility to support other women coming back in, if and when they’re ready to come back in.”
How flexible will the future look?
Looking ahead, it is clear that some view the future of law as being flexible.
“Law firms have no choice but to come to the table with flexible working options. Otherwise, they’re going to lose really good people — in particular, a lot of women — in the profession,” Ms Finch concludes.
“The profession has come a long way, and I can only see that trend increasing, as clients and law firms see the benefit of efficient utilisation of skills and services,” adds Mr Cowling.
“We’ve still got a long way to go, but there’s no question there’s a huge level of support for the idea that we need to allow people to work flexibly.”
Ms Miller succinctly summed up whether the future is flexible: “We believe so. You just have to watch the trends.”
Jerome Doraisamy is a senior writer for Lawyers Weekly and Wellness Daily. He is also the author of The Wellness Doctrines book series, an admitted solicitor in NSW, an adjunct lecturer at The University of Western Australia and is a board director of Minds Count.