An increasing number of firms in the UK are testing the four-day-week scheme to avoid more cut-throat savings options. UK firms Norton Rose, Mills & Reeve and Charles Russell have been testing the overseas waters but the proposal has also caught on in the Pacific.
Norton Rose’s radical plan involved putting everyone, including partners, on a reduced schedule for one year, reports Legal Week. The firm has made no layoffs and is the only major partnership to apply the strategy to everyone at the firm.
Another major Yorkshire firm, Harrowwells, instituted a four-day workweek for more than 100 of its lawyers and staff for a trial period, which is expected to last until at least June. Under the scheme, days will be staggered to keep staffing at a uniform level.
But Swaab Attorneys CEO Bronwyn Pott says firms should reconsider before making blanket flexible arrangements for all lawyers. While the firm is not implementing forced flexible workweeks, Pott told The New Lawyer “across the board is not the answer”.
“You have to weight the fairness of an across the board decision with the reality that this slowdown doesn’t affect everyone. If you have a balanced firm with specialties that are counter cyclical, you will have some staff run off their feet at the moment,” Pott said.
While Swaab only has 80 per cent capacity in some practice areas at the moment, most lawyers are now saying “what recession”, Pott said. “No lawyer wants to sit on their hands with nothing to do.”
Pott was approached by a couple of junior lawyers in January, who asked if they could take more time off. They were happy to take annual leave and leave without pay.
Harrowwells’ instituted four-day workweek, in which hours are staggered, poses problems for timetables and planning, Pott said. Without a good handle on resources, “you could have a real drop in efficiency or, at the worst, pandemonium”, she said.
Pott recommends firms call for volunteers instead of enforcing reduced hours. “We’re dealing with adults. If you are honest with your people about your firm’s situation … you might be surprised by what happens,” she said.
“Asking people to take a 20 per cent pay cut and still do the same amount of work isn’t going to fly for very long.”
Allens Arthur Robinson was the latest firm to publicly reinforce lawyers’ access to flexible working arrangements, as an alternative to voluntary redundancy. But as The New Lawyer went to press, no enforced reduced hours had been implemented.
Since last October there has been a loss of 56,000 full-time jobs in the Australian workforce. But this is largely made up by an increase of 46,000 part-time jobs where employers across various fields have transitioned workers onto fewer hours.
Additional reporting by Hayden Guthrie.