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Flexibility key in lowering stress levels in midsize firms, report says

A new report has revealed the challenges and opportunities shaping the priorities of midsize law firms in 2024 – with 52 per cent of firms placing a high priority on recruiting and retaining talent next year.

user iconLauren Croft 14 December 2023 Big Law
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Actionstep has released its 2024 Australian Midsize Law Firm Priorities Report, uncovering a number of key trends shaping the midsize legal industry.

The report surveyed more than 200 law firm professionals from midsize firms across Australia to find out how their organisation is evolving and what they’re anticipating in the next year.

Key findings from the report show that the majority (71 per cent) are focused on growing new revenue in 2024, with 52 per cent prioritising recruiting and retaining talent and 50 per cent planning to prioritise improving client satisfaction.


In terms of attracting and retaining staff, the report noted that this was “hardly surprising” given that 52 per cent of respondents said understaffing was contributing to their stress levels, while 45 per cent said long hours were to blame.

Majority of midsize firms embracing flexibility

According to the report, 80 per cent of midsize law firm professionals reported having some form of flexible working arrangements. In line with this, 26 per cent of respondents have had a decrease in stress since the introduction of flexible working at their firm.

Despite this, 41 per cent of midsize law firm professionals are experiencing high or extremely high levels of stress, and legal staff who reported high stress levels were 2.3 times more likely to leave their firm in the next 12 months. Legal staff were also revealed to be significantly more stressed compared to administrative support. Forty-six per cent of legal staff experienced high stress versus 21 per cent of administrative staff.

“Interestingly, the greater flexibility law firm professionals have over their work schedule, the stronger their connection to their teams and senior leadership,” the report stated.

“This is contrary to the belief that remote/hybrid work diminishes connection and law firm culture by decreasing face time between staff. On the whole, 66 per cent of law firm professionals feel very or extremely connected to their teams, and 52 per cent maintain a strong connection with senior leaders.”

Legal recruiters have previously told Lawyers Weekly 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. However, after the Fair Work Commission recently ruled in favour of an employer wanting a staff member to return to the office, there have been questions about whether WFH full-time will become less and less common.

“The emergence of flexible hybrid and remote work has become the new normal – hence why 30 per cent of mid-sized law firm respondents want technology that supports flexible or remote work. Midsize law firms have embraced this change, recognising it’s the future of work. But that’s not the only reason why. Flexible hybrid and remote work has also been shown to alleviate midsize law firm-specific stress,” the report stated.

“For example, stress due to demand or pressure from clients, understaffing or lack of resources, long hours, and not having clear processes in place to follow. According to our research, 57 per cent of law firm professionals have some form of flexible working, with 23 per cent having complete flexibility and 20 per cent with very little flexibility. When asked what their current work-related stress levels are, 45 per cent of law firm professionals admit to moderate stress levels while 41 per cent are grappling with high or very high stress.”

However, with a shift to flexible working arrangements, 26 per cent of respondents reported a decrease in stress. The report also highlighted the importance of remote and hybrid work on employee retention; those with inflexible schedules were shown to have felt more disconnected from work than those with increased flexibility.

According to the report, law firm professionals were 5.1 times more likely to leave their organisations if they feel disconnected from senior leaders in their firm. In addition, law firm professionals are 4.9 times more likely to leave their organisations if they feel disconnected from their team, and those with higher stress levels are 4.1 times more likely to leave their organisations.

“Our research indicates there are several ways midsize law firms can boost connection among employees. These include regular check-ins and meetings (chosen by 28 per cent of respondents), open and transparent communication (chosen by 25 per cent of respondents) and social activities (chosen by 22 per cent of respondents). These shouldn’t come as a surprise,” the report stated.

“Law firm staff often work long hours under intense pressure. While the work might be rewarding in some cases, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Having regular interaction with the rest of the team, clear communication throughout the firm, and the chance to develop strong relationships with colleagues outside the office builds connection.”

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