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Shorter working weeks can ‘rebalance’ domestic responsibilities

Women in law are likely to be the main beneficiaries of truncated working schedules, argues one professional.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 05 September 2022 Big Law
Shorter working weeks can ‘rebalance’ domestic responsibilities
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That law firms are looking at creative ways to incentivise and support legal professionals is a good thing. That such incentives can assist men and women alike in better managing domestic responsibilities is even better, suggests Julip Advisory founder Kim Wiegand (pictured), noting that women will likely be the primary benefactors from truncated working schedules — even if, as recently reported by Lawyers Weekly, the onus will largely fall on the employee to make shorter working weeks a success.

Recent policy updates

Last month, national plaintiff firm Shine Lawyers unveiled its new nine-day fortnight option for staff, via which professionals can compress their fortnightly hours into a nine-day cycle.

 
 

Speaking about the new offering, Shine chief operating officer Jodie Willey said that the firm was “incredibly excited” to be able to provide its staff with additional flexibility to better balance their personal and professional commitments.

“We’re very big on creating new ways to work to support a healthier balance between our personal and professional lives, [and] we’re excited to see how this benefits our staff and our clients,” she said.

It followed the news that Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers — which last year won the Diversity Law Firm of the Year category at the Women in Law Awards — was introducing a four-day week option for staff across its eight offices in NSW.

Speaking about the firm’s rollout of the policy, Coutts managing partner Adriana Care and partner Karena Nicholls said, “it works for us”.

“Depending on your business structure and the ability of your senior team it would affect what would work in your business. The nine-day fortnight is a step in the right direction, but for us, we believe in such a fast-paced profession our four-day week supports our team and their wellbeing,” the pair said.

The four-day working week is, of course, not a new idea — last year, Lawyers Weekly published a feature exploring whether now is the time for such truncated working weeks for Australia’s legal profession.  

Better support for home life

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Ms Wiegand said that she is “very supportive” of efforts by firms to accommodate the diverse needs and preferences of their staff, particularly given the ongoing and incredibly tight and competitive talent market.

“On the surface, reducing contact days (not necessarily hours, such as in the Shine example), goes a long way to supporting a rebalance of work and home responsibilities for both men and women,” she reflected.

“It also hopefully will halt a return to the manic hamster wheel many professionals were on prior to COVID-19. In which case, both a nine-day fortnight or four-day week, offer great advantages for firms and employees.”

Ms Wiegand mused that she questions whether the nine-day fortnight could be a greater opportunity for men to test the “part-time whilst full-time” schedule, so as to even the ongoing gender imbalance within the home. 

“Research shows that women still manage most of the home mental load. Therefore, I would be surprised if women are not the primary benefactors of the four-day week in particular, as this scenario could support reduced childcare costs or time to care for parents and dependants,” she submitted.

Implementation of either scenario across firms, Ms Wiegand noted, will see varying levels of success.

“On the one hand, the nine-day fortnight is an attractive and possibly more palatable offering for employers. A nine-day fortnight also allows for greater flexibility for employees without significantly impacting other working days. There would appear to be less need for great cultural changes with only one non-contact day a fortnight,” she said.

“Perhaps this is a more palatable step towards true ‘where, when, how’ work flexibility I hope we see in the future. It seems a more realistic option for both men and women.”

The legal profession is, Ms Wiegand continued, “still highly wedded” to billable hours or units, which could lead to a sense of a “false economy” in the context of a truncated working week.

“It seems challenging to do ‘all the doing’ in four days which many struggle to do in five days, particularly in a resource constrained market. In the four-day week model, greater changes are needed to behaviour and support structures within the team and firm to keep the matter workload turning,” she said.

Although she is, ultimately, a strong advocate for the four-day working week, the nine-day fortnight may be a more realistic step and more palatable for firms and staff, Ms Wiegand deduced.

“Whichever option is considered, firms must ensure it is more than lip-service and there is a true commitment to support this working style,” she said.

“As with many benefits, simply having the option, does not stop the stigma often associated. We have come a long way from the full-time long office hours fanatics, but still some way from true autonomous flexibility.”