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How Flexibility in Your Work Methods Will Lead to Greater Success

How Flexibility in Your Work Methods Will Lead to Greater Success
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Where lawyers are concerned, flexibility can mean many things. For years, flexibility has been viewed as an accommodation from the employer’s perspective, with the associated connotation that lawyers who sought flexibility somehow embodied a lack of seriousness or commitment to the profession. When we look more closely, however, we see that flexibility is a means to create a win–win for both the employer and the lawyer.

Historically, the notion of flexibility as it relates to individuals has been raised within the context of work/life balance. The stigma around lawyers seeking flexibility is that these lawyers presumably lack commitment or want an accommodation that will inconvenience their company or firm. These notions of flexibility often still exist and we believe the concept of flexibility needs to be reframed. Instead, the focus needs to be on why and how incorporating more flexibility into every workplace is in the best interests collectively of clients, law firms, and lawyers. Indeed, flexibility is not just the future of work—it is its present as well.

It has been a long time since any business, legal or otherwise, has operated on a nine-to-five clock. When employers have lawyers who are used to working flexibly, it is typically much easier for them to take a call at midnight with a client or partner who is working in a different time zone across the world. This is just one example of how working flexibly is in fact being responsive to market demand. Additionally, while we have discussed many billable hour evils, one luxury of the billable hour is that the firm generates the same revenue from lawyers whenever and wherever they bill. While the billable hour is still the dominant means of billing clients, law firms can and should use the billable hour as an asset for their lawyers to gain more control of their day, all the while not impacting the economic model.

As an expert on work/life balance, Debbie Epstein Henry encourages firms to capitalize on the benefits of flexibility. Firms could increase their lawyers’ productivity if they were more confident in their lawyers’ ability to manage their time and if they provided some helpful parameters, including training on best practices, to make sure that business needs are met. When employers give lawyers flexibility in how they structure their day, these lawyers gain greater satisfaction in their lives, which feeds their efficiency, work quality, and loyalty.

Importantly, as we explore alternative scheduling, note that working flexibly is not the same as working reduced hours; many lawyers are willing to work full-time hours provided they have control in the ways in which they work. Working flexibly also does not always mean working from home.

For example, Generation Y lawyers (those born between approximately 1980 and 2000), who represent the first generation that was raised on technology, view technology as a way of life. To not access the innovations of technology for these lawyers seems to them counter-intuitive and counter-productive. As a result of this exposure, many Gen Y lawyers have an expectation that flexibility will be part of their employers’ work methodology. Even within an office space, Gen Y is looking for ways to work differently afforded by technology—it is about having a different mindset of how work should be performed and in turn, how the best work product will be produced.

This does not mean that flexibility is without its challenges. Debbie discovered this when she served as a consultant to the New York State Bar Association, during which she conducted a facilitation with partners from some of the large firms in New York who were in charge of associate issues. One of the partners’ concerns was that Gen Y lawyers were asking for more mentoring and support—but they did not want to be in the office to receive it. These partners were trained and built bonds with their colleagues by spending nights and weekends reviewing documents together in the office or at the printer. Even though the partners who participated in the New York Bar facilitation were well-intentioned and wanted to encourage their Gen Y lawyers to express their needs, they were at the same time confused about how to provide feedback and a sense of community without actually being together.

Law firm partners are not alone in the flexibility predicament. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer triggered a national debate on this when she announced a ban on working from home in 2013. . . . The irony of a technology company issuing a statement of this sort was not lost on many. What the ensuing debate demonstrated, however, is that flexibility, like most things, requires a balance. There is no notable evidence that demonstrates that a conventional work week, with all employees on site is the magic that produces the best work at the best price. Yet, that does not diminish the value of face time and having colleagues work together during part of a traditional work week. Such in-person contact facilitates impromptu discussions and personal connections that help solidify trust as well as ingenuity in a working relationship. Thus, we believe the answer here is to both ensure that employees can gather together, share ideas organically, and build camaraderie, while giving employees the ability to work flexibly and individually to increase satisfaction and productivity. Taken together, these measures will contribute to the overall bottom line.

While pursuing flexibility has its challenges, the risks associated with being inflexible are not ones that the legal profession can afford. Take Suzie Scanlon Rabinowitz’s experience for example. Suzie set out to become a large law firm partner. She worked for two top New York City law firms and, while she enjoyed the challenges presented in the actual work, she found the demands inconsistent with her family life. When the lifestyle became unsustainable, Suzie left the profession for five years. The flexible nature of a virtual law firm environment is what brought her back to practice. More than ten years later, Suzie has found a way to practice law at a high level on her own terms. Had a virtual law firm platform not been available to Suzie, she may never have returned to practice. Suzie is not alone among women. Thirty-one percent of women lawyers leave the profession, independent of maternity leave. With women comprising 45–50 percent of enrolled law school classes for almost 30 years, the profession can no longer operate without maximizing the potential of all of its talent pool, whether these lawyers’ paths are linear or not.

The issues around individual lawyer flexibility, however, are no longer specific to women. According to the National Association of Law Placement, in 2013, 30 percent of the lawyers who worked reduced hours were men. Additionally, the Working Mother & Flex-Time Lawyers LLC Best Law Firms for Women annual survey found from the aggregated data of their 50 winning firms, that at each level of seniority, male lawyers were greater users of full-time flexibility than female lawyers. Increased flexibility was certainly one of the prevailing reasons why Garry Berger started his own law firm. And while Garry started his firm to achieve his own personal and professional goals, he has been gratified to see how flexibility has helped the 15 lawyers who work with him to achieve their personal and professional goals too.

Individual lawyers who are flexible in their work methods are the ones who will ultimately succeed, given that the flexibility will enable them to meet the 24/7 demands of practice as well as their needs to balance the professional and personal demands on their time. As for clients, providing flexibility in staffing is what they want and what they need and therefore a rigid approach to staffing is not sustainable. For law firms, what this means is the need for further analysis to determine whether they will choose to mirror the more stratified staffing model of their clients for the analogous ebbs and flows of work. While law firms struggle with this challenge, we see that new legal models have found a way to align the marketplace and individual lawyers’ desire for flexibility with an employer’s need for profitability and efficiency. Perhaps the best way to capture this mutually beneficial flexibility solution is in the word agility. Indeed, the future of legal practice is ultimately about the agility of legal service providers to respond to and anticipate the needs of their clients as well as the agility of individual lawyers to respond to and anticipate the staffing needs of their employers.

Note: Excerpted from Finding Bliss: Innovative Legal Models for Happy Clients & Happy Lawyers, by Deborah Epstein Henry, Suzie Scanlon Rabinowitz, Garry A. Berger, published by the American Bar Association. Available at a discount to ABA members. Visit www.ShopABA.org.