The concept of agile working is fast defining the next generation of law firms that threaten to bloody the nose of the traditional status quo. Being able to work where, when and how you want is of course only one element that differentiates the new from the old but interestingly it is the one that traditional law firms have deemed the easiest to defend. By somehow portraying themselves as supporters of agile working it is hoped they will blunt one of the key advantages enjoyed by newer law firm models.
Paying lip service
Paying lip service to existing staff and allowing them to work the occasional day from home or by knocking down the partitioning walls to create an open plan office is missing the point. True agile working is a real cultural change. Allowing lawyers to work in this way from day one has some serious benefits. There is no stigma attached to working from home. There is no feeling of somehow missing out on the office dynamic.
It is not just about a better work-life balance, it is about working in the smartest way possible. Whether it is the time saved on the daily commute, greater productivity achieved through more comfortable ergonomics, or simply enhanced motivation resulting from greater autonomy, the advantages are well documented.
The key difference in approach to agile working between a next generation law firm, such as McCarthy Denning, and a traditional law firm lies within attitude and the moral compass of the respective firms. True agile working lies at the heart of next generation firms and is seen as standard in how they operate. There is no need to put in a request to work from home, have it approved by a management committee or indeed have the experiment evaluated to see if it has been a success. Agile working is not announced as part of some PR initiative or internally to aid in staff morale and retention. It is simply the norm.
“ True agile working lies at the heart of next generation firms and is seen as standard in how they operate”
Considerations such as how many days a week are ‘allowed’ to be worked out of the office, whether an individual should be granted their request for a compressed working week or how colleagues might perceive the arrangements are simply not on the radar when your starting point is to work in the smartest possible way for the benefit of the client not just for the lawyer.
The challenge for the traditional firm is to implement the change that is needed. The recognition that agile working is the future and here to stay is a start, albeit long overdue, and a ringing endorsement that these new law firms have got it right with their approach from the very beginning.
It isn’t rocket science. Technology has changed the way that everyone works and a very real benefit is that physical work location is no longer as important as it once was. That said, new firms are set up from the outset with the latest bespoke technical solutions that enable agile working. Cloud-based practice management solutions, individual rather than firm-wide security and cutting edge mobile communications go further than facilitate agile working, they positively encourage it.
Challenges for traditional firms
Traditional law firms do not necessarily enjoy this opportunity. Instead they are restrained by outdated technology which is prohibitively expensive to change. Logging on to the office server each morning comes at a price. The change needed to allow increasing requests for agile working requires investment, increased supervision and security and detailed communication. Rather than seeing flexibility as standard and optimal, it is seen as a problem that has to be overcome.
Communicating to the outside world that your firm has finally entered the 21st century and will now embrace agile working is the easy part. And therein lies the rub. Because so much time, money and effort is required for traditional law firms to simply match what the next generation law firm offered from the very start some of the key benefits are lost. The expensive office premises cannot be abandoned. Lines of unoccupied desks cannot be seen to accompany the empty meeting rooms and so there will be winners and losers.
Accompanying the big announcements of embracing agile working are the thinly veiled caveats. Agile working will be available to all but each request will be considered individually. Resentment and negative office politics will be prevalent for those left behind. As more and more firms make their agile working announcements cynicism from within can be understood. For those (next generation) firms who know of no other way, agile working isn’t newsworthy at all.
Article by co-founder and CEO Warren Wooldridge. First published by New Law Journal.