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Flexibility in the workforce

30 June 2017 - By Kate Geenty

Flexible working may not currently be the norm for lawyers, but it is the way of the future, says Sarah Taylor, the author of a new report called Valuing Our Lawyers: The untapped potential of flexible working in the New Zealand legal profession.

Head and shoulders photo of Sarah Taylor

Ms Taylor investigated flexible working in the legal profession after receiving a scholarship from the In-house Lawyers Association of New Zealand (ILANZ) – a section of the New Zealand Law Society.

She says there is a need for new role models – different from the lawyers who are held out as successful because of the long hours they spend in the office or the positions they hold. These days, she says, the importance of lawyers’ lives outside of work should be recognised and employers need to set up an environment and culture “that supports flexible working regardless of gender, age, role, level or reason”.

The study

The study looks at flexible working in the legal profession, with a focus on in-house lawyers. It looks at why people want (or need) to work flexibly, how many people are doing it, the benefits and challenges of it, and how to make it work. It also looks at different legal services models and ways to “harness a largely untapped talent pool”.

What is flexible working?

Flexible working can take many forms, including working part-time, working remotely, job-sharing, working flexi-hours, or working a fixed-term contract.

Ms Taylor says a lot of lawyers she interviewed work in permanent, full-time positions but on a flexible basis, for example, working from home one day a week, or starting late on certain days.

“Many interviewees emphasised that flexible working, for them, was not about working less hard or less hours, but about having some autonomy about when, where or how they work. They did not mind working long hours or sometimes working in the evenings or weekends if it meant they had the ability to balance other important things in their life: to go to piano lessons on a Tuesday morning or pick up their kids from school on Thursday afternoons.”

Who is affected?

It’s not just a working mum issue, Ms Taylor emphasises, instead it is relevant to men and women of all ages and roles, regardless of whether they have children.

“I interviewed men and women from all around New Zealand, some with kids, some without, from a range of positions, areas of expertise, and different levels of experience, in-house lawyers from the public and private sectors, and private practice lawyers.”

The report includes 10 case studies of lawyers with different backgrounds, situations and experiences with flexible working. “I hope that these stories will provide some inspiration and that these are the sort of people who will be future role models in our profession.”

Although there is limited data on the number of New Zealand lawyers who have flexible working arrangements, Ms Taylor says that various reports indicate that more in-house lawyers work flexibly than private practice lawyers; the number of women lawyers working flexibly significantly outnumbers men; and that some parts of the private sector are more open to flexible working than the public sector.

The attraction of being flexible

A desire for better balance between work and life outside of work is one of the main reasons people want more flexibility in their working lives. “Lawyers, in particular, often struggle to achieve a good balance. Failure to do so can lead to a myriad of problems and great lawyers leaving the profession,” says Ms Taylor.

She found that flexibility is highly rated when it comes to job satisfaction, citing surveys that found more than two-thirds of New Zealand workers would quit their job for a similar role that had more flexible hours, and that workers would prefer more flexibility in their hours over more holiday.

Ms Taylor notes that while flexible working has traditionally been seen as being for the sole benefit of the employee at a cost to the employer, this view is changing and numerous studies have shown that organisations can benefit from flexible working practices.

Personal experience

Ms Taylor, who has worked as a lawyer since 1998 in Wellington, London and Singapore and now Nelson, is a big fan of flexible working. She has worked flexibly, in various forms, since 2011 and says it has enabled her to work in some “truly great jobs while doing other important and fun things”.

Her last four jobs have been part-time – three of them were advertised as full-time positions but she applied anyway. “My employers were happy to employ me on a part-time basis despite there being no indication of any flexibility in the job ads.”

Her current job – Principal Legal Advisor at the Tasman District Council – was advertised as part-time with flexibility around days and hours worked. “I have been monitoring legal job ads for several years and have only seen this a few times. It was like pollen to a bee.”

Barriers and bias

Some people are worried that working flexibly could have a negative impact on their career or the quality of work they receive, however Ms Taylor concludes that it is possible to progress a career while working flexibly. She says some reasons why flexible working arrangements are not being adopted include:

  • Unconscious bias in the organisation,
  • A culture of presenteeism (the need to be seen in the office and a perception that if someone is physically present, they are working and productive),
  • A fear of excessive workload,
  • Lack of trust of support from managers or colleagues,
  • Guilt, stigma and lack of confidence.

The keys to success

Sarah Taylor reports that trust, good communication, support, reciprocity, good technology and adaptability are the key factors in a successful flexible working arrangement.

A supportive manager is seen as a key factor in a successful flexible arrangement. “More than one interviewee talked about situations where they had a great flexible arrangement, but when their manager changed, the arrangement did not work so well, which led to them leaving their job.”

Flexibility also needs to be a two-way street, and employees have to be willing to occasionally work outside of their normal hours or conditions.

“All the lawyers I talked to recognised this and said that while it was important to set boundaries, they accepted that there would always be times when they might need to be available outside their normal work hours,” she says.

Wasted potential

The report finds that a lot of lawyers want more flexibility than is currently on offer. Ms Taylor believes offering flexible conditions could open up a bigger, more diverse talent pool and provide opportunities for lawyers who might otherwise leave the profession.

“Until employers are more open about flexibility and proactively invite applicants on a flexible basis, they will be limiting the pool of talent from which they can draw and there will continue to be wasted talent in our profession.”

To read the report in full go to ilanz.org and look under resources. Email Sarah Taylor at sarah@lawstudio.nz

Crunching the numbers

Statistics New Zealand has reported that, between 2014 and 2019, it is expected that 39% of New Zealand employees would be hired on flexible working arrangements, “to attract, engage and retain the best talent for their business”.

  • One third of New Zealand workers are in ‘non-standard’ work, in that they are either self-employed, or have temporary or part-time work,
  • Almost half of all employees have flexible hours at least sometimes, ie they can start and finish work at different times if they want to,
  • Almost a third of employees spend some time working from home over a four-week period.

Mixed views

"I haven’t seen anyone who works part-time who doesn’t work really hard."
— Manager, public sector legal team.

"There is a lot to be said for being optimum. I can achieve more in a couple of hours in an optimum state than [I can] in two days in the office. If we’re using billable hours, what makes more money? Longer, unproductive hours … it’s madness. There is a perverse disincentive to be efficient."
— Partner, law firm.

"We have the tools to enable remote working but there is no replacement for face-to-face contact … when the clients wander in, they want someone there."
— Manager, public sector legal team.

"It [remote working] is fine with people I trust, but there are some people I just don’t trust to work from home."
— Manager, public sector legal team.

"I previously worked part-time, but found I was actually doing a full-time job for part-time wages. So I moved to full-time – my workload didn’t really change but I had more time to do it in."
— Senior solicitor, public sector legal team.

"I felt like I had to work extra hard to deliver, to prove myself, to not let anyone down. I did not want anyone to think I was failing because I was part-time."
— Intermediate solicitor, public sector legal team.

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Last updated on the 30th June 2017