The work-life balance in a law firm

DPlanning, risk and strategy in businessana Denis-Smith, CEO and founder of Obelisk Support, examines the methods law firms can take to promote a healthy work-life balance.

How can law firms promote a healthy work-life balance?

The challenge for law firms is that they work on an hourly basis, which means that encouraging a shorter working day or encouraging people to work less sits in perfect contradiction with their revenue model. I would say it would be quite easy for them to encourage job sharing—that’s a way of being flexible without hurting revenue. Just that the revenue comes from two people. Law firms are good at giving employees benefits such as gyms so at a push you can add a little bit of ‘health’ without necessarily having the balance.

What challenges do law firms face when attempting to promote a healthy work-life balance? How do these challenges differ from other business sectors?

I am not sure the challenges are any different from other sectors. Law firms are businesses and as such their challenge is to balance business interests with the needs of the people. I do not believe that firms go out of their way to make their employees’ lives difficult or to refuse their balance, the decision-makers feel under pressure to bring revenue and compete and they pass on that pressure. In that kind of environment, there is little time for reflection, which causes even initiatives that promote a healthy work-life balance to remain just that—good initiatives that don’t end up being put into practice.

What strategies do other business sectors implement?

Businesses are better than professional services firms in trusting employees to work from home and manage their work schedule. Home working, even if sometimes it keeps you online for longer, is found to make people happier. No one enjoys a sweaty commute or the time wasted waiting for trains. Therefore, firms are missing out on happy and more productive employees because of their culture of presenteeism.

What can law firms learn from these approaches?

Trust is the only way you get the best out of people. A culture of fear will only get you so far.

Why is a healthy work-life balance beneficial to employees? What are some of the benefits of a healthy work-life balance for employers?

Employees are people first. So businesses should care about their employees not because they are revenue creators for them, but because they are participants in the wider economy. If they don’t work for you, they will go to a competitor so you can only benefit from treating your staff well. But similarly, you sleep better at night for knowing you treat your staff as people, not just tools. We are well beyond the industrial age where people had to line up the production line and be like robots.

Are there any potential consequences if firms fail to strike a healthy work-life balance?

Their talent acquisition costs goes up—it’s as simple as that—as they become a revolving door of disgruntled employees. Therefore, there is a direct economic cost and you underestimate it at your peril if you are a law firm.

Can employees take legal action against employers for failing to promote healthy work-life balance?

By the time you take legal action, you are already damaged by the unhappiness you suffered at work. Although this can be a route, I have seen too often people leave too late and suffer from depression and other health consequences even if they win their case. I always pass on to people the great advice I received from a business executive—unlike wine, people issues don’t get better with time. Therefore, it’s better to get out and get a job you love than to try to sue your employer over work-life balance.

A culture of presenteeism is common in many law firms—do you think this is likely to change?

As long as work is measured by how many hours you bill, no. I recently read about a firm who will name and shame people that bill less than seven hours a day by locking them out of their computers. It is hard to believe that in 2016 such action should be necessary.

Are there any other trends or developments around work-life balance worth mentioning?

Again, I think there are a lot of trends and initiatives—but we are still in the ‘nine-to-five’ bubble that means they don’t really have impact.

Interviewed by Lucy Karsten. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

 

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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