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Can you balance law with ‘life leave’?
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Can you balance law with ‘life leave’?

Matthew Kay, Pinsent Masons

“Should I stay or should I go…?”, in the famous words of The Clash, have perhaps at one time or another played in our heads when we’ve been feeling a bit down on the job. But for most, those moments are usually punctuated with periods of feeling pride and a sense of achievement, writes Matthew Kay.

You don’t want to leave your job, but a break longer than two weeks might be nice to help you feel refreshed for the next challenge.

Working in the professional services industry can be intense and many wouldn’t expect traditional industries such as accountancy and law to be at the forefront of innovating new workstyles. By this, I mean using disruptive technologies to help support and speed up workloads for lawyers, and introducing more flexible working practices to help get the most out of employees.

One firm’s innovation in particular caught my eye. EY introduced a scheme called ‘life leave’ in their Australian offices, whereby employees can take nearly three months off per year to relish time away from the desk, work on a part-time basis, spend time with the kids or travel around the world.

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The firm realised that they were more likely to retain employees if they allowed them flexibility. Indeed, in many industries, employees would be unable to take such a long period of time off work unless they resigned from their role. Yet this means companies lose talent. Allowing them flexibility to take time off means they’re more likely to retain employees rather than lose them at critical stages of their lives. For example, this could be Millennials wishing to travel or parents wanting more flexibility to spend time with their children.

Some law firms in Australia are starting to operate out of online only cloud-based software rather than physical headquarters, so lawyers can work from wherever they wish, whether that’s at home, on the beach or over brunch at their local café.

Partners are also increasingly demanding this flexibility. In 2017, it was found by the Australian Financial Review that out of 3,100 partners, ten per cent worked part-time or under a flexible working arrangement.

Indeed, Pinsent Masons was named as one of Australia’s leading legal innovators by the 2018 Legal Innovation Index for the ‘full agility model’ that was recently launched in its Melbourne office. The programme has changed the focus to recognising outcomes delivered to clients, instead of the mode that traditionally dominated law firms, ‘presenteeism’. The model also allows lawyers to work in a flexible environment so they can opt what hours and where they would like to work.

You may wonder, is the legal industry in danger of shooting themselves in the foot? Even if lawyers are calling for flexibility, does this make the clients happy? Is there a high risk that clients could move elsewhere to more traditional structures with less flexibility? At the end of the day we can’t forget the fairly obvious point that firms rely on them for work.

The answer to this concern is: no, because we’ve been finding that clients are actually demanding flexible legal resource. With in-house legal budgets under evermore scrutiny, in light of the growth of the competitive global economy, businesses have to be operated more tightly due to the growth of global competition. Boards aren’t always willing to foot the bill for a large, all-encompassing in-house legal team if they don’t need specific expertise at all times.

Businesses are realising they can opt out of large legal budgets if they only employ lawyers when they need them, and with law firms increasingly offering this flexible solution, this demand is most likely to increase.

I’ve seen, in my position at Vario, how this disruption is increasingly becoming the ‘new normal’ in the legal industry. It will be fascinating to see how these demands continue to change and diversify in favour of ever-increasing flexible legal resource.

Contract lawyering hubs have been sprouting up – for lawyers selecting this career path they are empowered to choose what assignments they want to work on, when they wish to work and from where.

Matthew Kay, director of Vario from Pinsent Masons.

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