Comment: Agile working: can lawyers learn from uberisation?

alexby Alex McPherson on Ignition Law*
Agile working, as it is known in legal circles, has become standard practice for several categories of employer: particularly those which fully appreciate that it can help to make their organisation more efficient and effective, delivering improved business performance together with greater customer satisfaction. But although it is now more than two years since legislation was introduced which extended the right to request agile working, recent research from Timewise revealed that only 6% of jobs advertised in the UK mentioned agile working.
Unsurprisingly, it is also very high on the wish list of millions of employees in diverse sectors. The reason is obvious: agile working provides them with the unprecedented freedom to choose where, when and how often they work. In hoping to find the right midpoint in that elusive work-life balance, they feel, rightly, that agile working will be empowering as it provides them with much greater control over their daily working lives.
So far, the public and voluntary sectors have been ahead of the game. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development recently published figures showing that 86% of public sector employers offer part-time working, 69% offer job shares while 65% offer flexitime. A comparable picture exists in the voluntary sector: 84% of employers offer part-time working, 49% allow job sharing while 56% use flexitime. By contrast, figures for private sector companies are lower: 70% offer part-time working, 25% job shares and 33% flexitime.
No comprehensive data is published by big law firms: they are notably coy on the subject. But unquestionably, the numbers for each category would be dramatically lower. Job sharing, for example, is almost unheard of amongst lawyers in private practice. This should not come as a surprise given that most of them have been reluctant adopters of the idea which some of them still regard as a fad, rather than a fundamental sea change in working practices.
That was until recently when a number of law firms started to chase headlines by launching a well-publicized range of agile working initiatives. Yet so far, many of their belated efforts have had a fairly modest impact: most of their lawyers continue to have no choice but to work long hours, under close supervision in an office. Many of them still feel, as recently described by one young lawyer, like ‘legal battery-hens.’ The billable hours culture still reigns supreme.
According to the Best Employers Report 2016,  “The request for more flexible working remains the most important issue that remains unresolved by commercial law firms.” Yet in spite of the growing uberisation of legal services, most firms continue to operate using an analogue model in a distinctly digital age. Caught by an inevitable tension between adapting their current model and an apprehension about how this might adversely impact on their fee income in terms of billable hours, most efforts to promote agile working have been piecemeal and half-hearted.
Traditional law firms might well argue the contrary, suggesting that some hot-desking, a few collaborative spaces, the odd day working from home or even a four-day week is genuine agile working. But it is not. Having an intermittently flexible fringe in working patterns still leaves a completely rigid centre. They have not yet accepted that true agile working means exactly that – being completely agile. In practice, this means total flexibility that suits both the employer and the employee. To achieve it requires an innovative, open minded approach in terms of how they think about the practicalities of work when taking account of time and place. In turn, this means completely re-adjusting their expectations on performance and outcomes.
To change their mindset about agile working, traditional law firms should include various factors into their thinking, not least recognising that work is an activity, not a place. They also need to understand that flexibility is essential for agile working: anytime, any place, anywhere. Lawyers must be free to choose when, where and how often they work. Not the law firm.
Ensuring that these all blend well together requires the maximum use of every available relevant technology and the minimum use of a fixed location. Effectively combined, these ingredients create lawyers who feel much more motivated and empowered: every law firm should understand how considerable a benefit this can be not just for their lawyers, but also for their business. For any firm that is seeking to achieve the highest level of service integration with their clients, this is not only possible, but essential.
Complete acceptance of the agile working model also requires looking at the world through a different prism, one which readily embraces every beneficial aspect of IT and innovation. Law firms also have to embed a culture of work flexibility and to embrace flexible working as part of an overall cultural transformation.
Although technology has significantly benefitted the speed and operation of law firms everywhere, their culture remains too often centred on printing everything, even when the files are held electronically. Having invested substantially in state of the art case and document management systems, they fail to implement them effectively and still rely far too often on having paper files. Working electronically and making best use of IT therefore has a way to go: shifting lawyers out of a long-established comfort zone cultivated over many years. To optimise the culture of agile working, law firms need to harness the power of their IT systems to work, wherever possible, without paper.
The best place for them to start looking for a successful model in operation is disruptive growth companies: start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs. The more that law firms emulate some of what they do and in particular, how they do it, the closer they will be to understanding their clients that much better. Only once that Rubicon is crossed, can law firms who hope to have a successful future begin to share fully in their values and really understand how the markets in which they are active truly operate. In the process, they acquire a much better understanding of exactly what their clients need in legal advice.
Several of the advantages, automatically provided by agile working in a virtual law firm, are self-evident: reduced costs, increased productivity and efficiency, greater autonomy, less hierarchy, and an increased ability to provide longer business hours to serve our clients from a global platform. Others might be less obvious: enhanced lawyer performance, millennial values taking shape in the workplace, together with an increased ability to attract and retain more high quality lawyers who are more personally engaged and motivated as a consequence. They also feel more loyal to the firm.
Above everything, lawyers experience greater autonomy and an improved work life balance. More control and less stress creates other benefits too, not least a marked improvement in health, happiness and wellbeing. When the absolute focus on billable hours diminishes and lawyers are no longer tied to a single office location, agile working is refreshing, liberating and inspiring.
Although less manifestly revenue focused, agile working ironically generates more revenue because lawyers are more productive. Happy employees are productive employees. But the most important difference between lawyers employed by a big traditional firm and their more agile counterparts at a virtual firm comes down to the issue of trust: they are trusted to do their job by themselves, entirely on their own, without any requirement for constant supervision. Trust delivers autonomy which can lead to more engagement rather than less, whereas very limited flexibility by the employer shows very limited trust in the employee.
Agile working offers lawyers a great deal, just like their clients, it can provide them with millennial values. At the same time, the continued pace of technological change and the growth of AI means that almost everything that law firms do will change. So continuing to do things just as they have always been done cannot determine how they will be managed in the future: remember Uber only started in March 2009. Similar innovation and change, supported by ethically focused and community orientated values, could transform the legal industry.
Of course, agile working is not a panacea. Alongside AI and other disruptive technologies, it can be seen as both a threat and an opportunity. Lawyers of a certain age – young enough to embrace technology, but old enough to respect its limitations – also know that when it comes to using IT to support agile working, you should aim to have the best of both worlds.
But there can be no denial, or burying collective heads in the sand: agile working is fast becoming a critical element in the provision of legal services as much as it is in the wider world. In recognizing that it also creates an assortment of practical challenges, some law firms will embrace them and thrive; others will not. The firms that will succeed are those which are ready to resolve the challenges, ethically and effectively, so that they can provide the necessary impetus to deliver much needed change to what remains a very traditional business.
* Alex McPherson is a Co-Founder of Ignition Law, an entrepreneurial law firm providing specialist corporate, commercial and employment advice to start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs.