Could a Four-Day Week Work in the Legal Sector?
Aon recently published an expansive study of employee engagement in the legal sector, which found that employee engagement in legal practices was down compared to other professional service sectors, with an average 52% of law firm employees being engaged compared to 59% in sectors such as accounting or consultancy. On top of this, associates were found to be the least engaged demographic in the legal sector, averaging only 43% with ‘around one in four associates [feeling] actively disengaged at their firm (twice the rate of active disengagement seen among partners and trainees).’
This is where the four-day work week comes in. Trials have been conducted by a variety of businesses including Microsoft, as well as legal practices such as Benenati Law and Portcullis Legals. What’s more, the effects on employee engagement and satisfaction seem wholly positive.
Why a four-day work week?
The four-day work week is touted by some as the future of office work. Others deride it as a mere flight of fancy. But findings show a shorter work week can, paradoxically, improve productivity by as much as 40%.
Employee engagement is also another major concern, and staff members who have taken part in these trial periods have reported lower levels of stress, greater focus, and increased loyalty to their employer.
So why not?
It isn’t so simple as declaring a four-day week and having done with it. Implementation is key, and what works for one firm might not suit another. The needs of a large independent legal firm differ from, say, a publisher’s in-house legal team, for example. A frequently reported major concern is how to compensate for the loss of business hours, both for the firm and its employees. The firm needs to be accessible to its clients, and employees need their contracted hours.
One way in which some firms and businesses might do this is by extending business hours on the days they are open. This poses an issue in that longer working hours are associated with increased stress and a loss of productivity. Presenteeism is generally regarded as inefficient even without being compounded by, say, a ten-hour working day resulting from a four-day work week; so while this approach worked out for Portcullis Legals, a Plymouth-based firm, it won’t be suitable for everyone.
How can a four-day week be implemented in my firm?
Another approach that is potentially viable for law firms is the practice of assigning multiple fee-earners to the same case, meaning that client access is maintained to its fullest extent while enabling staff to take their allotted time off without fear of neglecting their casework. As well as decreasing stress and increasing employee engagement, this could also have the knock-on effect of providing more connections per client, making them feel more valued by the firm as a whole.
This approach was espoused by Debbie Epstein Henry, co-founder of Bliss Lawyers in an article looking at a Florida-based practice, Benenati Law, who have made the switch to a four-hour work week. These job-shares, Henry states, are based on an already existing practice within firms to assign multiple mid-level associates to the same case. This, she argues, could effectively be leveraged to allow for shorter work weeks, and to reduce the guilt and stress around taking time off.
If you don’t, somebody else will
One of the biggest challenges facing employers in competitive sectors is matching the benefits of other firms. A survey in April by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that, ‘fifteen percent of organizations offer four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less to at least some employees, up from 13% in 2017.’
So in the end, snatching up fresh talent might become all the more difficult if the next firm over is offering everything you’re giving, all rounded off with more days off per week. And if, as may be the case, they manage this without negatively impacting (or even managing to improve) employee productivity, then you as their competitor might find yourself seriously losing out.
If you’d like to know more about employee engagement in the legal sector, or need to find a way to improve performance across your firm, then come see Weekly10 at stand 204 during LegalEx 2020.