Craig Wilson
Craig Wilson

Articles From the Team

Legal jobs and flexible working

Historically, in-house legal jobs were viewed by private practice lawyers as the only option for a better work/life balance and an escape from billable hour targets, late nights and weekend working, as well as being at the beck and call of clients and partners.

However, since the end of the recession, and following a dramatic upturn in the demand for commercial legal talent, flexible working has become increasingly common amongst top tier private practice law firms; principally, with the aim of retaining and attracting hard-to-find talent. This has made private practice work more attractive and work-life balance friendly. Conversely, this has made some in-house departments (within certain sectors) appear less flexible.

The aim of this blog is to acknowledge a welcome shift in the rationale that’s taken place within private practice; to highlight the aspects of private practice that are unlikely to change; and, to point out some of the reasons why certain industry and commerce employers operate the way they do.

Private practice and flexible working

As stated, the growth in flexible working within private practice is very welcome and for many solicitors, the change is wholly positive.

Solicitors employed by the law firms that now adopt flexible working, typically find that they’re better able to control and manage work-life balance, and on the whole, are more positive and satisfied with their lot. It’s definitely a step in the right direction. However, there are a few points to consider:

  1. While some law firms are more flexible regarding start/finish time and/or homeworking, billable hour targets remain the same;
  2. Private practice solicitors remain answerable to their paying customers and normally have less control over their workload;
  3. Flexible/homeworking doesn’t translate into more regular hours or a drop-off in late nights and/or weekend time to complete work;
  4. Flexible working isn’t available to all. Certain legal disciplines aren’t compatible with flexible working and many law firms aren’t adopting it; and,
  5. Private practice lawyers are required to network and business develop – usually over and above meeting their billing targets.

The law firms implementing flexible working have embraced contemporary working methods and acknowledge the modern worker’s shift in focus when it comes to work/life balance, mental health and overall, life outside of work.

Is it as it seems?

However, these requirements are secondary to a law firm’s need to generate revenue and carry out work for its clients. Because private practice solicitors who work flexibly still have billing targets, the need to meet deadlines is continuous and they’re still answerable to client and partner demands; for these reasons, it’s important not to mistake flexibility for a reduction in working hours and/or stress.

This is especially so the more senior you are in private practice, as solicitors and partners with a following can be at the beck and call of their clients and regularly work into the evening, at weekends and on holiday.

In-house legal and flexible working

Industry and commerce legal departments, like private practice law firms, come in all sizes and configurations, so they’re not all able or willing to adopt flexible/home working.

It goes without saying that professional services companies – of which law firms are included – are typically more open to and able to offer flexible working to their in-house legal staff. The same is true of tech, finance and other companies where logging in at a computer is how most employees carry out their duties.

For other companies, flexible working is simply not possible or is less palatable. Companies that need staff on-site i.e. retail (shop workers), manufacturing (production line operators), construction (engineers, builders etc.), and logistics (warehouse operatives and drivers) are more likely to expect their lawyers (and other head office staff) to work from the office a majority of the time; to promote consistency and fairness with the workers who have to carry out their duties on site.

In addition, in-house legal departments operate very differently to private practice, a point that needs to be borne in mind when comparing flexible working at a forward-thinking law firm versus an industry and commerce employer.

Law firms provide a remote service to clients, so an employee working from home doesn’t significantly alter the way its provided.  In-house counsel, however, work directly for their clients and typically sit alongside them too. To be effective, in-house counsel is required to be visible and available to internal stakeholders; being seen in the corridors of power is important to ensure that key stakeholders and directors know who you are and learn to trust you. Your effectiveness as an in-house legal resource is built on the back of the relationships you develop and through the employment of an ‘open door’ policy where stakeholders can come to you for advice or assistance at any given time.

While some companies offer less flexible working arrangements than the top commercial firms, in the vast majority of cases, in-house lawyers enjoy more regular working hours and face fewer demands to work late into the evening or at weekends. Billable hour targets isn’t a concept in-house lawyers have to think about and there’s almost zero focus on hitting other targets or winning business. In-house counsel have more scope to push back and advise their clients and typically have greater control over their workload.

In summary

For those private practice lawyers who are happy to log in and work in the evening, perhaps after the kids have been fed, washed and put to bed, then there’s never been a better time to work as a solicitor in private practice. However, for individuals who look to the number of hours worked each week, it’s safe to say that in a vast majority of cases, in-house legal jobs still offer a better work/life balance with more stable and regular hours.

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