The legal workplace is evolving. Firms are facing requests from lawyers to go part-time, work flexible hours or work from home. What form the work arrangement takes is not so much the point as the management of that work arrangement by both employer and employee.
On Wednesday, 27 August 2008, Jaala Pulford MLC, Parliamentary Secretary for Industrial Relations, launched three new protocols developed by Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) on working flexible hours, working part-time and working from home – guidelines for the employer and operator in making a successful work arrangement.
The launch of the protocols coincided with the commencement of the family responsibilities amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act 1996 (Vic) which expand the definition of what constitutes discrimination against parents or carers in employment and employment-related issues.
Under the new laws an employer, a principal or a firm must not, in relation to work arrangements, unreasonably refuse to accommodate a person’s parental or carer responsibilities.
The new laws do two things: tackle systemic discrimination in the workplace; and make flexible work arrangements a family issue and not a gender issue.
It is true that at present more women than men take up flexible work practices, most commonly for family reasons. There are also men, however, who wish to work flexibly, to spend more time with their kids and to share domestic duties with their partner.
It is unfortunate then that often men who choose to work in flexible arrangements are deemed ‘soft’ or as somehow having lost their “breadwinner” status in society.
A CHANGE IN PERCEPTIONS
How can we change these perceptions? Changing discrimination laws is a start, but the application of those laws will be defunct if not supported by adequate education and leading by example in the workplace.
For the legal sphere this also means facing the challenges of a long hours culture, a “visibility equals productivity” mantra and a system of billing that commodifies every minute of our working day. Identifying these factors then begs the question: “Can flexibility ever be a viable reality in the legal world?”
The resounding answer is “yes” and we are hearing it from the managing partners of our top-tier Melbourne firms. In talks with partners of law firms there is a genuine acknowledgment that flexibility can be achieved; that making the effort will positively impact on retention rates and economic viability.
VWL recently ran a “first of its kind” forum for managers/partners of VWL sponsor firms who have experience managing a lawyer working flexibly within a transactional practice. This pilot focus group drew together partners of transactional practices in an attempt to exchange ideas on better management of lawyers working flexibly.
This initiative, “Do You Manage?” is a direct response to the recommendations made in the VWL report, “360 Degree Review: Flexible Work Practice – Confronting myths and realities in the legal profession” of 2006 which identified attitudinal barriers to the effectiveness of flexibility in the legal workplace among those wanting to work flexibly, partners/manager, clients, support workers and co-workers.
The forum acknowledged that implementing flexible work practices is a challenge, but found that the partners and law firms viewed it as a challenge worthy of meeting head on.
Initiatives such as “Do You Manage?” play an important role in encouraging an open and continued dialogue on the issues of work/life balance. The forum will be rolled out to partners of litigation groups and human resource managers in 2009.
By no means are we saying that all flexible work arrangements run smoothly or that they are all conducive to a better quality of life and rewarding work in every arrangement.
The legal sphere is battling embedded cultural restrictions. However, outdated attitudes are lessening – especially with the injection of Gen Y. There is recognition by decision-makers that change is inevitable given the talent shortage, international movement and expectations that younger lawyers have a keen interest in work/life balance.
In talks with Melbourne law students it is clear to me that they are acutely aware of the long hours culture within firms and the strict billing practices and that this is not an environment they want to be entering.
Requesting a flexible work arrangement is not about asking for a favour. This person should not be viewed as being any less committed or loyal to their employer or any less interested in promotion.
Every person is different and every person has differing competing priorities in their lives. Some do not see “doing it all” as a challenge, others do. It is about retaining talent and accommodating, reasonably, requests made for a flexible work arrangement.
The amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act which come into effect on 1 September 2008 will aid in keeping the debate alive. The exchange of ideas and views of what constitutes reasonable accommodation and how can we better work arrangements within the framework of the law firm need to continue if we are going to take the issues of family, lifestyle and work seriously.
As the HREOC report, It’s About Time: Women, Men, Work and Family, identified, work/life balance is “the topic of the 21st Century for families, employers and government”.