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Are 4-day weeks closer than ever for lawyers?

A four-day working week may be on the horizon for many industries, if it has not already arrived. This begs the question: how might it be possible in the legal industry — which is home to an already stretched judicial system? 

user iconJess Feyder 20 March 2023 Big Law
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Last week, Lawyers Weekly highlighted that the legal profession is struggling with exhaustion across the board — a consequential issue for an industry that supports justice for society. 

A four-day working week was a key recommendation laid out recently in a Senate committee report as an option for decreasing employee burnout and increasing mental health outcomes. The recommendation holds that employees’ hours should be reduced by 20 per cent, while they retain a full salary, and was backed by Labor and the Greens. 

The prospect of a four-day week in law is not a new one. In recent years, Lawyers Weekly has explored whether the time has come for such revised schedules, the pros and cons of these schedules, and how four-day weeks could benefit the climate

 
 

Award-winning firm Coutts Lawyers and Conveyancers has already successfully implemented a four-day working week option, and national plaintiff firm Shine Lawyers has undertaken a nine-day fortnight allowance for its staff. 

Now, with two of the three major political parties backing further exploration into such a shake-up to the working week, the question should be re-raised: is law ready for a four-day week, especially given how much working life has been upended since early 2020?

Lawyers Weekly spoke to several legal professionals to explore how this might be implemented in the legal profession and if it might be of benefit to lawyers with positive knock-on effects on broader society. 

Fionn Bown, chief executive of Bowd, commented: “If the broader economy moves to a four-day work week — if the clients, the government, the courts, the corporations, move to the set week — then the legal profession could follow. But I don’t think the legal profession could lead because it is responsive by nature.”

Ms Bowd noted that it would be particularly difficult for the courts to move to a Monday to Thursday working week.

“The courts have a huge workload; there’s already a long time to [get to a] hearing, and to get judgments. 

“If everybody was working four days, I can only assume it would take longer. It would need to be balanced with more staff, and more courts,” Ms Bowd said.

“From the point of view of getting the wheels of justice moving, I don’t know if that arrangement allows the court to maintain its existing level of productivity. Hearings take how long they take — getting witnesses to talk, doing examinations and cross-examinations.

“I don’t see how they could operate less without there being a consequence for outcomes.”

Yet, the case is different for commercial firms, Ms Bowd explained. 

In studies of commercial companies, people are more productive when they work fewer hours, Ms Bowd explained, they’re more efficient and effective when they have more rest time — they’re less tired and overwhelmed and more innovative.

“It works in a commercial context, and therefore would work for commercial lawyers,” stated Ms Bowd. 

The courts, and the legal profession involved with the court system, may need to be more strategic in how they implement fewer working hours, Ms Bowd maintained, “it’s a question of innovation.”

“Solutions might include shift work and rostering; it doesn’t need to be about Monday to Thursday, it could be that hours are reduced over the course of a month, or a year. That’s how you would make it work with litigation and court proceedings,” she illuminated.

Considering that such consequential work goes on in courts, perhaps those working in the court system are even more in need of the clarity of mind that is afforded by more rest time, Lawyers Weekly commented.

“It’s a really important point,” Ms Bowd responded. 

“Lawyers have no idea what they would be capable of if they were more well rested.” 

“Lawyers are almost never well rested; they are working on adrenaline and to a deadline,” she explained. “We don’t know what we would be capable of if we actually had time to think about the way that we work, the work itself, process improvements, efficiencies, and how to answer important questions.”

“I strongly suspect that if we had more downtime and less urgency that we would, we come up with all kinds of innovations, and it would lead to improvements and better outcomes,” Ms Bowd suggested. 

Karena Nicholls is a partner at Coutts, an NSW-based firm that is involved with the courts and has implemented a four-day working week. She discussed the elements that make it a practical reality. 

“Lawyer life is restricted by the courts and tribunals and the availability of court time,” she noted. “Many matters are not set to accommodate your calendar but rather what is available.” 

“It can only work if you are able to be flexible, as you cannot expect others to take on your load if you are not available,” she explained. “Having a good team dynamic is the key.”

There are positives and negatives, Ms Nicholls outlined.

“The positive is the value of time; many of us have families and other obligations, so we are able to accommodate those and still have a rewarding career.

“The downfalls can be when you are unable to draw the boundaries, the impact on your team from a mentoring perspective and the impact on company culture, so you have to work really hard to maintain a level of connection,” Ms Nicholls explained. 

The profession seems a little apprehensive on the idea, but as we move forward, I suspect it will become part of the legal profession framework if you want to attract and retain good quality employees.”

Maddocks CEO David Newman took a different view: “In some ways, the debate around the four-day week proceeds on a false premise — being that we continue to work a traditional four-day week.” 

“Since 2020, most firms have moved very quickly to flexible models that allow their people to work when, where, and how it suits them and their clients. 

“This means people are often choosing to work outside the usual ‘business hours’ model to achieve greater work/life balance or make more time for caring responsibilities.”

He continued: “Changes to the current five-day week standard may have certain benefits, but will they be significantly different to the benefits of embedding flexible work — through place, time, hours, or additional leave.”

“The challenge could be that people end up working much longer hours on their four days of work in order to meet work client needs, and the impact of compressing work into four days may create additional stress that negates the benefit.”

Karen Finch, CEO at Legally Yours, reflected the sentiment shared by Ms Nicholls.

“The four-day week is something that is already being implemented within the small law sector, with some of the most progressive small law firms already offering a four-day week as an added talent retention and attraction tool as they start to scale up their firms,” Ms Finch told Lawyers Weekly.

“I believe the legal profession is on the cusp of an overall complete business transformation, particularly within the small law sector, where this transformation started over 10 years ago, was accelerated by the pandemic, and is being further pushed along by the current economic downturn we are all facing.” 

Shine Lawyers was also approached for comment but did not respond in time. 

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