OPPOSITION TO flexibility in the workplace does not come from clients as has been suggested by some commentators, according to a new report released by Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL). Rather, it is partners and managers in law firms who are resisting holistic reform to the way lawyers work.
The report, A 360 Degree Review: Flexible Work Practices, is based on surveys and focus groups of lawyers who work flexibly, as well as their clients, co-workers, support staff and managers.
Clients suggested the real barriers to flexible work practices come from lawyers themselves and the culture of law firms. The report concluded that managers who were supportive of flexible work practices, lacked the necessary skills to properly manage them.
Significantly, the report also found that flexible work practices often had a negative impact on the career of the lawyer involved. Only 44 per cent of lawyers working flexibly said it was possible to do so and maintain a career within their organisation.
Lawyers in government and corporate roles were more likely to take a broader view of career progression than private practitioners, who had their eye on partnership and saw few alternative career paths available to them.
Alice MacDougall, a Special Counsel in Freehills’ charity law practice, who works three days a week, said people think that because a lawyer is working flexibly they have lost their commitment.
“I don’t understand, because I think to work part time requires more commitment — you need to be more organised to achieve it,” she said.
This attitude probably arose from a lack of training for managers who simply referred to a stereotype. “You are still the same professional person, but I think your aspirations do change,” MacDougall said.
“I think a lot of people who go to flexible work practices just accept that it means they are not going to be partner.”
Co-chair of VWL’s work practices committee, Virginia Jay, said clients claimed they did not mind using a lawyer who is working flexibly, provided this did not impact on the quality of service and the overall result.