In April, Reed Smith became the latest law firm to bring in agile working to enable its staff to take more control over the way they work, as associate billable hours increase from 1500 to 1600 a year. Here, London managing partner Andrew Jenkinson describes the decision-making process behind the move, how decisions are socialised and executed, and what is next on the agenda for the UK office of the top 30 global law firm.

What does agile working mean at Reed Smith?

‘Agile’ often becomes mixed up with ‘flexible’, but of course we already offer separate formal flexible working arrangements to staff who need those – our agile working initiative is quite different. This is about how can we make it easier for our lawyers and other staff to work remotely to carry out their functions and tasks, with the ultimate aim of improving work-life balance as well as our productivity and profitability. We operate in an extremely competitive environment and people have to work hard but we want them to have a decent work-life balance. Mobile and tech culture means that we are always plugged into our work and our clients; the idea that you complete all your work between the hours of 9am and 5pm is no longer a reality.

Therefore, we do not take the approach that our staff have to be in the office during these hours – they might work at home or hot desk at a client; it’s partly about making sure our staff are out there getting to know clients better and partly about giving them more control.

Our initiative comes at a time when we have increased associate billable hours from 1500 to 1600; is it better to save two hours a day commuting? In some cases, yes. The quid pro quo of expecting people to work harder is that we will help them save time.

How much is this about the technology?

We’re constantly improving and innovating the technology we use. We’ve had remote access for five years but alongside that we’re reviewing the hardware we offer. The IT team brought in various laptops and Surface Pros earlier in the year and people got to select a device; personally I went for a Surface Pro. We took the attitude that if we’re going to offer agile working, we need to offer the right technology.

We’re moving from Blackberry to iPhone and our IT team is working hard to make sure that our app-based platform is synchronized, since we are also moving to an app-based environment. These projects have been running alongside each other because they each feed into one another.

When did you start talking about going agile?

It’s something that has been regularly mentioned. I’ve been in this role for one year and two months and I rely heavily on our HR director in EME, Kevan Skelton, who runs a great team looking at the way in which lawyers operate or may operate in the future, especially with a view to ensuring we attract and retain the best and brightest young talent we can.

He often comes to me with ideas and he came to me saying that we need to be more adaptable in the way we construct our working environment or we won’t attract the right people in the future; of course, I was keen to put that into effect. It is up to us to make sure we keep up to date with the best ways to deliver legal services to our clients and provide the best working environment for our associates and team members.

Have there been any concerns?

No one challenged the desire to effect change – it’s about how you do it; we needed to make sure the safeguards were in place. Of course, we need to make sure that we are profitable and hard-working and to some degree that is about hours. Then it’s about supporting team members.

The client shouldn’t have to know or care where you are, so any concerns that have been raised have related to the appropriateness of agile working for different team members. For instance, it’s more difficult if someone is learning a new role and will therefore need to be in the office absorbing up all the knowledge they can, just as it can be more difficult for a secretary to carry out agile working. That said, they may just need a day elsewhere to get a particular job done. Any concerns we’ve had have related to how we roll this out in a way which ensures that client service is never compromised.

Were property constraints a factor?

We have enough space for everyone; we are not rolling out the initiative for that reason. We will wait and see how this beds in and if we need less space so be it. First and foremost, we have created agile working as a benefit and an opportunity for staff.

What were the practical steps you took to put agile working into effect?

The first step for a project like this is idea generation: making sure somebody in the organisation is thinking about the way the legal professional services market is changing and what our team members want. Then it’s about making sure there is an atmosphere where new ideas are considered and listened to. I meet with the heads of HR, KM and IT every fortnight and ask what they are working on, what they feel is missing, what the competition is doing, how to get ahead of competition and whether there any new ideas they’d like me to listen to. It’s important to create an appropriate organisational structure and allocate time so you never miss out on an opportunity.

I will then work on a given idea with that person, in this case it was Kevan, and discuss it with all the other heads within the London office – what does the client value team think? What does the KM team think? What will we need to support it, how will it interlink with our current setup and is there any opposition?

Then the idea is discussed in our monthly practice group meetings to work out how it will impact each group. The client demands on each group are different and what secretaries do is different so you need to ask each group leader to think about how an initiative will affect their group. Each has thoughts on how to implement new policies so it’s important to have an ideas forum where everyone can discuss ideas and kick the tyres.

Then you send the idea back to the drawing board and start again. That’s how you improve policy and drafting – you want to be sure all the issues are taken into account in the drafting. I also like to discuss ideas at partner lunches and associate meetings and presentations. The more you talk about it the more you get a sense of where people’s worries and concerns are, and often people will come up with an idea you haven’t thought of.

It doesn’t work for everyone but I like being open. It shows that you’re open to new ideas and encourages dynamism and collaboration. Once the policy is redrafted it goes to the PR and comms team and is communicated internally and to the press.

What’s next on the list?

There are a number of things I’ve been open about. We will look at our use of office space but will see how agile working plays out first. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’d like to change the way our floors look – we need a refresh to reflect the fact that people are working in different ways. Currently, we operate in a semi-open plan layout with several break-out areas on each floor.

We are also looking at the way in which we allocate work to team members to make sure everyone has as broad an experience as possible, and to ensure a fair distribution of work. We have a pilot launching in our real estate team this summer. We are going to hire someone to run the pilot internally but use an external consultant to help it run smoothly and make sure the pilot works.

There are a whole host of reasons to look at work allocation including unconscious bias. But part of it is to make sure our workforce is flexible. Juniors need to absorb all the work and experience they can and not become too specialised too early.

This article first appeared in the June Legal IT Insider – you can sign up for your free monthly newsletter here: http://www.legaltechnology.com//latest-newsletter/