As flexible working policy frameworks in many firms leave little to be desired, it’s time partners step in and take their responsibilities seriously, a new report has found. Kate Gibbs looks into what needs to be done
AS POLICY frameworks in many law firms fail to impress employees, it’s up to partners to change their attitudes and make transparent alternative work arrangements for their staff, a report into the Victorian legal profession has found.
The issue of flexibility again came to the fore this week with the release of a Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) and Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) combined report entitled ‘Bendable or expendable? — Practises and attitudes towards work flexibility in Victoria’s biggest legal employers’.
While firms are more likely than ever before to have people working on a variety of arrangements — usually women with children — few employees are sure exactly what is on offer, and what they are able to ask for when it comes to working flexibly, the report finds.
The real trouble is in firms that do not have basic policy and guidelines in place about what boundaries exist and what is on offer for the employee looking for alternatives to their current arrangement.
According to the report, there needs to be greater transparency about how firms manage their arrangements and conditions. “Employees are at a disadvantage if they do not know the boundaries and expectations of developing their careers and their work arrangements.
“And firms genuinely wanting employees to take advantage of flexible work arrangements and their entitlements, because they recognise the staff retention and satisfaction rewards to the firm, put themselves at a disadvantage: they already have the ability to better meet the needs of their staff, but do not communicate effectively with them about those mechanisms,” the report reads.
The transparency issue could stem from a tradition in which unions and awards are non existent and in which decisions are often made on a case-by-case basis, the report suggests. As law firms are owned by a number of partners, a lot of the business, including decisions about entitlements and work arrangements for staff, is discretionary.
In this environment, transparency can suffer and, in some cases, there is a reluctance to put it in place via written policies and clear communication to the whole firm what a firm’s position is. But partners must do this, the report argues, if staff retention is to be seriously addressed by law firms.
The Law Institute of Victoria labelled the report the first benchmarking study of work flexible practices in the legal profession, which built on the initial research of VWL in 2001.
The report aimed to give the profession a snapshot of how major firms in Victoria are “tackling the issue of work flexibility”. LIV president Cathy Gale said she hoped the report would enable the profession to build on developments that have already been made in firms.
“Finding ways to retain quality lawyers is one of the key challenges for the legal profession. With long hours and the pressures of the billable hour, there is a great interest in how firms can assist their employees to achieve work/life balance,” Gale said.
Much of the “onus” rests on partners to make non-traditional work arrangements acceptable and workable in order to address the work/life balance issue, the LIV and VWL report states.
“Employees in this research put the attitude of partners well ahead of any other determining factor in making alternatives work.” The report puts this down in part, again, to the fact that there were too few policy frameworks in place.
But on the other side of the coin, lawyers also accept some of the responsibility for their own situation. About one-fifth of respondents in non-traditional arrangements said it was their own determination that was the key to their successful implementation of a work/life balance. “They are probably applying the same determination that has propelled their career in the first place,” the report states.
It suggests law firms should ensure that the boundaries and expectations are clear if they are hoping to develop a clear policy on flexible working. Developing “basic planks” of policies and guidelines that make the employer’s position clear, including employee entitlement and how to go about getting them, is essential.
“These documents should not only exist, but they should be well known and widely communicated. These tools are the mechanisms by which employers state what they believe their responsibilities to employees are, and how they intend to meet those commitments.”
Law firms need to be shown the figures on the impact of having “truly family friendly” work practises and “entrenched flexible work arrangements”, the report notes. “The dollars saved in retention and loyalty of staff; … attraction of the best quality candidates in the market; and the bottom line impact of superior reputation in the employer of choice stakes — not just with the profession, but with their clients as well.”
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