Meet the men who ‘flex’ in law

Meet the men who ‘flex’ in law

11 November 2021 By Sarah Behenna
Meet the men who flex in law

We are in the midst of possibly the greatest revolution in the way we work in the modern era, and men in law are starting to take full advantage – for themselves and their families, writes Sarah Behenna.

Have you been noticing more of them around your office? Progressive male models and the emerging breed of flexible men are on the rise in private legal practice. These men may still look a little out of place, depending on where you work, and are certainly outnumbered in the senior ranks.

But, a generational shift in the partnership mix (and a little nudge from a pandemic) is changing the way law firms look. And it’s about time.

Essential elements for the effectiveness of flexible work include modelling positive behaviours and strong firm culture. Additionally, Paul Gabrynowicz, a consultant at Sparke Helmore Lawyers, describes that the secret to working flexibly is to ensure relationships with your employer and with your colleagues are based on trust.

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“Give and take is required. The result may not always be equal as long as it is fair. Sometimes you will give more. Sometimes less is more. And so, trust is engendered,” he explained.

After a number of years away from practising law, in 2005, Mr Gabrynowicz joined Sparke Helmore, a large, national, full-service law firm. “I generally work Monday to Thursday, but that too can vary depending on workload and the needs of the team.

During busy times, I have accumulated several extra working days, which I then ‘cash-in’ for extra-long weekends and extended time off. Not only are my days and weeks flexible, but also my start and finish times. I’m often in the office early but then leave early. On other occasions, I start late so I can drop grandchildren at school,” he explained.

Mr Gabrynowicz observed that an exceptional few are able to work 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, but those who do are often unaware that they have become less productive in the process. Instead, he appreciates that working flexibly allows him to spend more time with his wife and family, to more fully engage in his sporting and non-work activities, and allows him to take a more relaxed approach to life.

“As an experienced practitioner, I’ve become highly efficient too, making this arrangement a win-win for Sparke Helmore and for me,” he said. 

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In addition to their Flexible Work Policy, Sparke Helmore also has a Career Break Policy and the ability to purchase additional annual leave so that workers can access a number of options to suit their needs. “While policies and information are important, what is crucial for people to take them up is a culture and environment that demonstrates support and encouragement for people to do so,” said Katrina Cooper, diversity and inclusion manager at Sparke Helmore.

Defining flexible work

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) defines flexible working as an arrangement that gives employees the ability to have some control over when, where and how work is accomplished.

Emma Walsh, the CEO of Parents at Work, a social enterprise providing education and policy advisory services to create family-friendly workplaces, goes further with her definition. She explained that flexible work is a mindset; it’s not just about when you work or where you work. “It’s a way of working that adapts to the daily needs and challenges that arise in an employee’s working day and life.”

Recent 2020 WGEA data shows that 60 per cent of law firms say they hold their leaders accountable for improving workplace flexibility. The data also shows that 95.8 per cent of law firms (within the data set) have a flexible working arrangement, such as a strategy or policy, in place. This has increased from 84.8 per cent as first reported in 2014, the year the agency started collecting data.

However, having a strategy or a policy alone is not enough, and promotion of flexible work throughout a firm is imperative. Five years ago, WGEA reported that 80 per cent of law firms said that they promote flexible work throughout their organisation, and the latest 2020 data has seen a significant increase to 97.5 per cent of firms who now say they promote flexible work throughout their organisation.

Paul Gordon, 35, is a partner at full-service commercial law firm Wallmans Lawyers, and he explains that the firm has embraced, and genuinely promotes, flexible working at all levels. The positive and progressive workplace culture was one of the decisive factors of Mr Gordon joining the firm in 2018. He doesn’t subscribe to the outdated view that in order to be a successful lawyer, one must effectively devote their entire time and attention to practice.

“I think that we mustn’t wear being in the office until midnight as a badge of honour,” he said.

Mr Gordon has been working flexibly since the arrival of his first child in early 2020 and happily participates in the juggling act of work and home life. “The only way in which our industry will change is for people to bite the bullet and do it [work flexibly] and to talk to their firm about the importance to them in their personal life to work flexibly and to work through with their firms any perceived detriment.”

He also thinks that presenteeism is a product of workplace culture and expectations and is not at all tied to productivity.

“If a worker is working from home or starting or finishing at a different time and they’re not productive, then that’s a productivity issue – that is not necessarily linked to whether they’re working flexibly or not. I think law firms need to put trust in their workers to do the right thing,” he said.

Modelling

In addition to trusting relationships, strong senior role models are also integral in fostering the mindset of flexible work. The former director of WGEA, Libby Lyons, said that for flexibility to be successful within a workplace, senior men need to be modelling the behaviour.

“Senior leaders need to be giving permission for employees to work flexibly, and one of the best ways to do that is through role modelling,” she explained.

One such male model is Chris Kelly, 36, a partner at Thomson Geer. Mr Kelly works flexibly, through the use of technology, and has a professional spouse with whom he shares parenting responsibilities.

“While demand for excellent service delivery and quick turnaround times in legal practice has never been higher, I view the ability to work remotely and the requirement to be available 24/7 as a positive in allowing me to be flexible. I am always available, but I don’t always need to be at my desk. With technology, I can always finish a document or an advice and get it to the client at, say, 10pm (once the kids are in bed) after having left the office at 5pm to pick them up from child care,” he said.

Mr Kelly added that “demonstrating that it’s equally the father’s role to pick up the kids, to do domestic duties is as important in the household as it is in the workplace because we need younger men who work as lawyers to see it and we need women who are either in that position or might be in that position to see it”.

Mr Kelly knows that his ability to work flexibly directly impacts the choices his spouse is then able to make and commit to in relation to her own professional work life. Ms Lyons confirmed this concept and observed that “if we can change the circumstances and conditions for men at work, then we can change the choices for women”. She went on to explain that “if we are giving, in particular men, the option to do a compressed working week or to be able to buy extra annual leave, or can work from home for two days a week then that is actually providing his partner with more choice about how she works”.

However, despite the promising 2020 WGEA data, Ms Lyons has noticed that the data is at odds with what is actually happening in practice at firms. She explained that the legal profession says all the right things and does the right things in terms of making sure there are policies and strategies in place, but they don’t actually put it into practice. “On paper, the legal profession looks fantastic; but it’s not what we hear anecdotally. It’s not a lived experience for many lawyers,” she said. 

Accountability is tantamount to progression on this front. Firms must set targets for men’s engagement in flexible work and be accountable for directing, delivering and reporting them. 

Ms Lyons is of the opinion that “a really good way of holding people accountable for meeting the targets is through the annual bonus system. You hit people where it hurts them: the hip pocket. Particularly partners in law firms. This has to be something that happens from the top down. 

So, if there is a board of management, progress on all of this needs to be reported on to the board of management and the senior executive team.”

Culture

Workplace culture is paramount in creating a truly inclusive workplace. Policies are important, and they have to exist, but firms also have to build around them a culture that says these are things they care about, that matter to them, and that contribute to who they want to be as a workplace and as a business.

Culture has played a huge part in the way in which Peter Healey, 31, has been able to combine his practice with his personal life. Mr Healey is a senior associate at Cowell Clarke, a commercial law firm with offices in Adelaide and Sydney.

He describes that COVID-19 came at a pretty good time in terms of forced flexible working as his daughter Elspeth, Healey’s first child, was born at the beginning of February 2020. Healey took two weeks off following her birth and had just started to get back into working at the office when, all of a sudden, the entire firm shifted to working from home.

From the outset of parenthood, Mr Healey knew it was important to him to play an active role in family life, and he wanted to be around not only for important milestones but also for the day-to-day life of his daughter.

“Very early on, I noticed that Elspeth, when she’d wake up in the morning, that’s when you get bigger smiles from her, and so I really started to value just being there in the mornings rather than being at work very early in the mornings, in which case I would have missed it. You do see those special moments when you have flexibility, and you can’t help but have a better outlook on life when you just see this special little bundle growing up and developing,” he said.

Mr Healey explained that diversity in the generational representation within the firm and partnership mix and the ability for Cowell Clarke to trust their people had fostered the nurturing culture at his workplace.

As a further benefit, Mr Healey described that he hasn’t experienced any pushback from clients and has instead found quite the opposite to be the case.

“Particularly around when I took a couple of weeks off at the start of the year; when you are talking with clients about time frames, as soon as you mention that you are going to take some time off for parental leave, the overwhelming view was ‘oh, it can absolutely wait until you get back, that’s not a problem at all’. And so, you feel like you are actually connected better with these clients because you are sharing part of your personal life with them, and they are excited for you and very accommodating. I can honestly say I don’t think there was one client who had any concern that I needed to take time off or that I was any less contactable at any one point in time,” he said. 

But Mr Healey’s flexible work experience is not the norm, and the legal profession is still lagging well behind corporate Australia when it comes to progressive workplace culture and flexible work practices. Lisa Annese, CEO of the Diversity Council Australia, is bewildered by the lack of progress within the legal profession.

She remarked that “most ASX-listed companies are [now] focused on mainstream flexible work and no longer have to make a business case for gender equality – it is demanded of them by their shareholders”. 

Work/life

There is also a severe lack of progress on the domestic front for men. The outdated but lingering presumption that men will be breadwinners and women will be caregivers is hurting men, women, families and the economy.

“It limits women’s options when we have stereotypes like that,” said Ms Annese. “It limits women’s options in the workplace, and it also limits men’s options outside the workplace.”

Marcus Wallman, 50, is a director at Laity Morrow, a premium transactional and advisory law firm. He began working a four-day week just over a year ago and loves being able to spend Fridays with his two-year-old daughter and picking his eight-year-old step-daughter up from school. He also likes to think they have benefited from spending more time with him!

Mr Wallman believes that work flexibility offers choices and that this can only be a good thing. “I do appreciate that you can’t have it all and that you can’t expect to remain on the same pay, or, perhaps, speed of career progression when compared to full-time colleagues if you decide to work less than full-time. However, I appreciate having that choice to make,” he explained.

“Logically, I don’t see why offering flexibility at work should be linked to the issue of raising children. I think offering workplace flexibility promotes efficiency and productivity in those that want to make use of it and therefore should be open to all. If someone wants to work a three- or four-day week and spend one- or two-week days pursuing other interests or hobbies, and such working flexibility can reasonably be offered by an employer, then let them.”

Emma Walsh agreed with this sentiment and said that access to flexibility within private legal practice is imperative for all and that we need to move away from attaching flexible work to those with caring responsibilities “because if we keep thinking about it like that, then we are going to concede that flexibility is still attached to the working mother label and that is definitely not the future of work”.

Commercial & Legal, an innovative and nationally recognised property and conveyancing law firm, has its gaze set firmly on the future of work. The firm has cleverly incorporated a family room into the design of their new offices in Adelaide.

This decked-out, tech equipped family room provides a support option for employees in their firm who have caring responsibilities. Nicholas Graham, 38, a partner at Commercial & Legal, understands the importance and value of flexibility in the workplace and is proud that they have been able to create a space where their families can feel welcome.

“Many of us have caring responsibilities, so the family room concept means we have a safe and comfortable environment for the team to have their children while they work. It’s a space where our kids could be in the family room while we are seeing a client in the meeting room next door, all the while having the peace of mind of knowing our children are safe!” he said.

Mr Graham’s colleague, Mark Henderson, 41, also a Partner at Commercial & Legal, said the room is set up with a desk for children to come into the office (generally after school) to do their homework or, in some cases, sit and read or entertain themselves.

“The room is equipped with streaming services as well so that if there is a need for the kids to be there beyond the time it takes to do their homework, then they can do so. Some of the firm’s staff have their children walk themselves into the office from school or catch a bus after school on a regular basis, while others will use the room as a facility to be able to bring their kids to work but not into their office if they need to pop in on a day off when they don’t have other care arrangements for the children,” Mr Henderson said. 

Generational issues

Speaking of children, Emma Walsh described that the next generation of legal professionals simply would not tolerate the nine-to-five commuter life. She warned that “workplaces ignore [flexible work] at their peril because, in 2025, millennials will make up 70 per cent of the workforce. So, at the moment, unfortunately, we’ve got mainly still some baby boomers and Generation X-ers in the boardrooms making the decisions, and they are out of touch.

They are not representative of the next generation coming through at all, and until we see more millennials [in the partnership mix], it will be a clunky change and transition. Every firm should be making sure they have the next generation voice occupying a seat at that table.”

Matt DeGregorio, 48, managing partner at Duncan Basheer Hannon, has three children aged 20 years, 14 years, and 18 months old and works flexibly. He explained that a “change in the diversity and age of those who lead law firms will likely be a significant factor in changes to gender inequality and work flexibility”.

He suspected that as more women are able to progress to senior roles and as partnership demographics become younger, any current inequalities and lack of flexibility are likely to reduce. Firms that are able to evolve and innovate have a much better chance of remaining relevant, successful and profitable.

Flexible and hybrid working models have been mainstreamed by COVID-19. We are in the midst of possibly the greatest revolution in the way we work in the modern era. The future of work is undeniably flexible and is soon to be the norm rather than the exception; a flex, perhaps, for our profession.

Sarah Behenna is a qualified lawyer based in Adelaide, South Australia.

Meet the men who ‘flex’ in law
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