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How a 4-day week works for this firm

A year after implementing a four-day working week with no pay cuts, this law firm stands by the policy and has continued to push for flexibility.

user iconLauren Croft 10 July 2023 Big Law
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Last year, Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers implemented a new flexible working policy that the firm said at the time defied “traditional law firm culture, where working long hours is considered a rite of passage to partnership”.

In June 2022, senior lawyers at the firm — which won the Diversity Law Firm of the Year category at the Women in Law Awards — were given the option to reduce their work schedules to four days per week, with no salary decrease. Lawyers who participate in the policy saw their billable targets reduced by 10 per cent, alleviating any pressure to work longer hours on those four days.

Under the policy, lawyers are able to adjust their schedules on a weekly basis. It follows the firm’s already innovative approaches to flexible working, including tailoring work schedules to account for school drop-offs and pick-ups.


Such policies, the firm noted at the time, have “paid dividends for employees, but also, client satisfaction”, with Coutts seeing a 37.9 per cent expansion in clientele last financial year.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly a year on, Coutts managing partner Adriana Care​ said that many of its employees have taken up the new policy — and that it has improved staff attraction and retention.

“It is mainly our seniors that have exercised [the new policy] — and most have felt it quite manageable and help their personal commitments.

“Overall, it has positively impacted the firm, but it can be hard to manage, so you need strict boundaries in place. It can be challenging to manage with commitments such as court and external mediations, conciliations,” she said.

“We feel the initiative is one of our points of difference, but it has to be with the right employees who understand flexibility goes both ways.”

Last year, the firm said that part of the motivation for this new approach was to address the “wider employment problem” currently facing Australia’s legal profession.

This was followed by the release of new research from specialised recruiter Robert Half, which showed that 70 per cent of employers were worried about retaining their employees in 2023, with 30 per cent confirming that they can’t currently compete with other companies’ salaries, benefits and perks.

Moreover, 43 per cent said their employees (across sectors) had expressed concern about increasing workload and burnout — something the legal profession is all too familiar with, despite the rise of flexible working and an increased focus on culture within the profession.

Late last year, a number of legal recruiters confirmed that firms not offering flexibility would become “second- and third-tier choices” for candidates — particularly in a tight legal market with mid-level lawyers and senior associates in high demand.

Australian boutique FAL Lawyers encourages remote working on a more permanent basis, after consulting with staff and key industry stakeholders about what the future of work looks like to them. Hive Legal’s commercial team, which won Commercial Team of the Year at last year’s Australian Law Awards, also supports a “truly flexible” workplace.

Shine Lawyers also unveiled a new nine-day fortnight option for staff in August last year.

And despite the fact that multiple partners have expressed concerns regarding missed mentoring and learning opportunities in the face of flexible working, many BigLaw firms, including MinterEllison, Clayton Utz and Mills Oakley, will not mandate in-office work moving forward.

However, Major, Lindsey & Africa Sydney managing director Ricardo Paredes argued the opposite in June this year and said that he expects more and more law firms to start mandating office time.

“If you look around the market, the vast majority of smaller-sized law firms have had their lawyers and staff back in the office on a full-time basis for the last six or 12 months, and you don’t really hear the people at these firms complaining about it. It’s the bigger firms who continue to provide working-from-home arrangements, with the vast majority allowing their lawyers and staff to work from home twice a week,” he said.

“Gradually, I wonder if Australian law firms may look to mandate four days in the office, just like many of the firms in the US have begun to do. However, I believe that those firms who continue to provide some type of work-from-home offering will benefit in attracting a larger pool of candidates to work for them compared to the firms who mandate five days a week in the office.

“It’s just about getting the balance right. That said, as the market tightens, I suspect it is inevitable that firms will look more closely at those lawyers who are less than fully utilised. If the axe needs to fall, it is easier to let it fall on those with whom you don’t have a close, personal relationship. Camaraderie is built by being in the trenches together, so I would caution lawyers against letting themselves become too distant from the mothership, as it were.”

Despite this, Ms Care emphasised that flexibility should remain for staff moving forward — provided there is open communication around what works and what doesn’t.

“[Initiatives like a four-day working week] can help attract and support employees who previously felt they couldn’t commit to a legal career. However, I don’t think it’s as easy as flicking on a switch; it takes a lot of flexibility from both parties as the legal structure doesn’t always support it or people’s demands,” she added.

“I think flexibility is something people require and are looking for to support them and their personal commitments and wellbeing.”

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