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Law firms - the future of work

by Dame Janet Gaymer
27 March 2019

Dame Janet GaymerRetaining expensively trained and increasingly female talent continues to be a management concern.

In addition, the makeup of the workforces in firms is becoming more complex.

For example, the highly technological literate Generation Z will be working alongside post-war baby boomers, who are being exhorted to continue working but who may need assistance in transitioning out of the law.

Meanwhile the legal services market itself continues to evolve as clients demand greater value for money and innovation in a currently unsettled world.

Many firms have developed initiatives in order to respond to these changes.

In respect of female talent, women’s networks, mentoring schemes and the like have become increasingly commonplace. Generally, requests for flexible working are more common.

However, women in particular have not moved up into the leadership ranks in large numbers in law firms, preferring to leave and move into other careers, not always in the law.

Looking to the future, what might change the current way of working?

The expectations of multiple generations in the workplace have raised questions about what should be in the bargain between employer and employee. Yet, little has changed to accommodate them.

There is increasing evidence that employees, especially those with digital skills, will wish to define their own work schedule and that time may be seen as more valuable than a pay rise, particularly by mothers.

This desire to have control of time is not necessarily a trait of the gig economy. Some of the new business models in the legal services market have marketed the opportunity to have control of personal time as a reason for leaving traditional law firms.

The very nature of the billable hour and firms’ long held instinct to measure by reference to time means that a new approach to the allocation of time in the professional working relationship will not be easy.

However, time may become as important a part of employer and employee negotiations as salary. In other words, the control of time may shift from employer to employee, particularly if the employee possesses scarce skills.

Secondly, the tasks which an employee may perform may change over a career, as that employee moves more frequently between employers in order to facilitate lifestyle changes, such as becoming a father or mother.

Transactional work may become unsustainable as family circumstances change. Later in what will be a long working career, a different type of work may be feasible.

Some employees will choose to remain with an employer and endeavour to remain practising, on different terms. The pace of work for some will not change, by choice.

However, for those who wish to change the pace and type of work which they do, employers will need to have a mechanism and workforce planning strategy which anticipates these requests.

If the use of time and changing tasks become a priority for employees, then the tempo of work will change also. An employee will wish to work at different rates and at different paces throughout what may be a longer career than now.

In these circumstances, the traditional work bargain may need to be critically reviewed, as may HR policies and procedures, such as performance measurement and reward systems.

A firm’s ability to allocate work efficiently will also be tested, as will managers’ skills in understanding and handling a multi-generational workforce.

Since employees will be more mobile, the source of management expertise in firms will need re-evaluation, since the pool of lawyers who remain with a firm on a long-term basis may be substantially reduced.

The office environment will need re-examination in the light of technological advances, the changing tastes of highly socially networked employees and increasing pressures to cut overheads, such as head count.

Indeed, some might argue that a fundamental rethink of the way in which firms use and allocate their human resources is needed, rather than the current initiative led approach, often dictated by a managing partner’s priorities for his term of office.

In the meantime, firms will be striving to keep motivated the human resources which they currently employ.

This motivation may be assured for the time being not by the size of the pay packet but by other more human goals.

John Ruskin, writing in the nineteenth century, thought that in order for people to be happy at work, ‘they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it and they must have a sense of success in it’.

The lawyers of today might agree with these sentiments but their requirements for a happy working life in the future will test law firm leaders to the full.

Dame Janet Gaymer is an employment lawyer with both public and private sector experience, and is a former Simmons & Simmons senior partner.

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