Uberisation: how agile working works for lawyers
By Alex McPherson
October 27 2016 - Agile working has become a paramount concern for many employers, high on their agenda because they recognise that it can help to create a more efficient and effective organization. As a result, they appreciate that it can deliver improved business performance and greater customer satisfaction. For an increasing number of employees, agile working is also top of their wish list. Why? Because it provides them with the freedom to choose where, when and how often they work - as a result, they become empowered and have greater control over their work-life balance.
Many of the big law firms in the UK have been late, and possibly reluctant, adopters of the idea, only recently chasing the headlines with the launch of a range of agile working initiatives. But so far, many of their belated efforts have been half-hearted, piecemeal, and pretty limited in impact: most of their lawyers still have to work long hours, closely supervised in an office.
According to the Best Employers Report 2016, published by Legal Week Intelligence, "The request for more flexible working remains the most important issue that remains unresolved by commercial law firms." The conclusion is obvious: despite the growing uberisation of legal practice, they still operate by using an analogue model in a digital age.
Traditional law firms might genuinely believe that allowing the odd day to work from home or even offering a four-day week is agile working. But it is not. Being flexible around the edges still leaves a totally rigid centre. They have not woken up to the fact that true agile working means exactly that: being completely agile. This involves total flexibility that suits both the employer and the employee. It also demands a completely innovative way of how you look at work when it comes to time and place flexibility, and as a consequence, a recalibrated focus on performance and outcomes.
To fully accommodate agile working, traditional law firms need to incorporate several factors into their thinking, not least recognizing that work is an activity, not a place. Beyond that, they need to understand that agile working can be anytime, any place, anywhere, which empowers lawyers to become free to choose when, where and how often they work. Not the law firm. To facilitate this, there needs to be maximum use of every available relevant technology and a minimum dependence on a fixed office location. Combine these elements together and the result is individual lawyers who are significantly motivated and empowered: something that every law firm needs to recognize can be of great benefit to them.
Unqualified acceptance of the agile working model also necessitates a different way of looking at the world, one which embraces every beneficial aspect of innovation. As a model, the best place to look is how disruptive growth companies - start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs - operate. Law firms should aim to mirror some of what they do and in particular, how they do it. Only once that Rubicon is crossed, can law firms of the future fully share their values and completely understand the markets in which they are engaged. By doing so, they gain a much better understanding of what their clients want and need in legal services.
In a virtual law firm, some of the advantages of agile working are automatically obvious: reduced costs, increased productivity and efficiency, greater autonomy, less hierarchy, and the ability to provide longer business hours to serve our clients from a global platform. Others are less immediate: enhanced lawyer performance, more millennial values in the workplace, together with an increased ability to attract and retain more high quality lawyers because they are more personally engaged and motivated, and feel greater loyalty to the firm. All of this adds further value in the service offered to clients.
The greatest plus for lawyers is an improved work life balance and greater autonomy. Having less stress and more control delivers further additional benefits, not least a general improvement in wellbeing, health and happiness. Without the total focus on billable hours and not being tied to one location, agile working refreshes, liberates and inspires.
Although it is less obviously revenue focused, the agile working model does in fact produce more revenue: lawyers become more productive. However, the critical difference between an individual lawyer in a large traditional firm and an agile working lawyer in a virtual firm centres on the issue of trust: that they are trusted to do their job without constant supervision. The increased autonomy that trust provides leads to increased engagement. There are those who argue that very limited flexibility by the employer shows very limited trust in the employee.
Agile working has much to offer lawyers. It provides them with millennial values which they can share with their clients. Meanwhile almost everything that law firms do today will change. Therefore, continuing to do things in the way they have always been done cannot dictate how they are managed in the future: it is worth remembering the affect of Uber which only started in March 2009. An ethically focused reorientation is needed in the legal industry, driven by community orientated and collaborative lawyers.
Of course, it should be recognised that agile working is not a panacea. Although a critical element in the future of legal services as much as it is in the world outside, it also presents assorted practical challenges. Firms have to be ready to embrace and resolve them, ethically and dynamically, so that they can provide the 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.