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The delicate balance: Part time/flexible work

07 June 2019 - By Tracey Cormack

There is no one size fits all to working part-time or flexibly, but more and more legal professionals are wanting to take more control of their lives and achieve that elusive work/life balance.

A pink flamingo

While a major reason why people want to work less hours or re-jig their working hours is to look after children, the model also applies to people without children who want to achieve that work/life balance.

That, of course, is dependent on factors such as how much money you need to live on, professional goals, and whether it is possible to work from home.

According to Statistics New Zealand, in 2018 almost two-thirds of businesses reported having formal arrangements to allow employees to use personal sick leave, unpaid leave or compassionate leave to care for other people who were sick, but only 10% of businesses offered child-care related allowances or facilities.

In a 2017 report Valuing our Lawyers, Sarah Taylor states that flexible working is not yet the norm in the legal profession and that the challenges are “generally felt to be insurmountable and outweighed by the benefits”. She adds there is “untapped potential in the legal profession: untapped benefits, untapped talent and untapped market opportunities.”

And key findings in a study undertaken by recruitment firm OCG Consulting and Diversitas, an Auckland-based diversity consultancy, were that 68% of people would leave their current role if offered a comparable job with greater flexibility, while only 28% of respondents had formal flexible working arrangements.

Part 6AA was inserted into the Employment Relations Act 2000 in 2008 to provide employees with a statutory right to make a request for a variation of their working arrangements.

Why work part-time or flexibly?

Helen Mackay runs Juno Legal, a law firm of in-house lawyers where many employees work flexible hours. She says nearly 25% of all lawyers in New Zealand practise in-house, and that many say they are overloaded.

“Work lands on their desk with unrealistic expectations and they are under demanding time pressures for long hours.”

Helen Mackay
Helen Mackay

Helen says she has noticed that a lot of senior lawyers are leaving the profession and one reason is the inability to get the flexibility they need.

Getaflex is an on-line job platform for professionals launched in 2018 by Amy Prebble. Roles vary, including full-time flexible and part-time work, remote working, flexible working hours, short-term and job-share (which isn’t common in New Zealand but is more widespread in the UK). Amy wants to show that there are benefits to the employee, the employer and the wider community by changing the way people work. She says the benefits for employees include work/life balance, being about to care for children or other dependents, manage an illness or disability or to pursue a passion. And for the employer, it is important to be able to attract and retain skilled talent as flexibility is a key issue that a lot of employees are now looking for.

Flexible work is offered on the platform by Vodafone, the University of Auckland, ANZ, Aurecon and Transpower. Law firms MinterEllisonRuddWatts and Lawyers on Demand have also signed up to her platform. “It is a key way to increase productivity, greater employee engagement and loyalty and mental health benefits – other benefits include greater resilience and reducing congestion on the roads,” says Amy.

Work/life balance is encouraged by the partners at specialist health sector law firm Claro where a number staff work flexible hours at their Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch branches. Partners Dr Jonathan Coates and Anita Miller explain that it was a deliberate decision to ensure that they had a flexible workforce. By chance they all happen to be women. “We have good lawyers that perhaps didn’t want to work full-time but wanted to remain involved and have expertise that we can call on.”

Approaching your employer

From the individuals and law firm directors interviewed, one key factor to make the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ working relationship work is communication.

Whatever the arrangement, if the parties’ expectations are not clearly set out then the arrangement is in danger of failing.

Of the interviewed lawyers only one had a major problem when she informed her employers about taking maternity leave.

Christine, who did not want to use her actual name, approached her partners when she was about to go on maternity leave with her first child. She was working at a law firm in the South Island in 2014 and requested a year off. Her employer told her, via a letter, that since she was a “key person” they would not guarantee her job when she came back. On questioning this she was told that “it is not possible to be a part-time lawyer”. And later, that it would not be worth it as she would have to spend money on childcare.

Christine explained that the exemption to the Parental Leave and Employment Protection Act 1987 (s 41(1)(a)) – the job cannot be kept open because a temporary replacement is not reasonably practicable due to the key position occupied within the employer’s enterprise by the employee) was misused. She said that she was only three years in (since admission) and so while not a “key person” they had put a lot of time into training her and she was becoming a valuable lawyer.

While Christine eventually received an apology, she says the partners asked her how “she could make it work” and expressed concerns about the costs of childcare. “They absolutely didn’t think it was possible.” She says her employers told her they were not trying to get rid of her, but that is how she felt. Having had enough she took up another position doing immigration work.

Christine’s current employers are “really supportive and happy with me working flexibly” she says. Her advice to anyone wanting to work part-time/flexibly is to be clear with your employers about what you want at the outset. “Start out as you intend to be. Don’t work through lunches or breaks if you don’t want to be rushed off your feet. Set expectation at a realistic level. And if you care for children or other people or have other commitments, try to find a job which might have less stress attached to it so that it’s easier to have a good work/life balance. Have a partner/spouse in an industry who is willing to be flexible with work times.”

Helen Mackay says from the outset clear goals and expectations must be set. She says it has to be a give and take model and for any employee who wants to suggest flexible working to their employers, be prepared for an “honest, open and grown up conversation.” For the employer she acknowledges that changing leadership styles and systems is not an easy process and managers will need to “let go of something to gain something”. For Helen and Juno Legal it is important to “put back the power” into the hands of the person delivering the work and for them to understand what their ideal time commitment to work across the week looks like.

Helen’s primary driver is “happy lawyers”. “Happy clients” come a close second, she says. While most law firms are driven by serving clients first that model can have a detrimental effect on staff whose needs might be overlooked in the process.

Chris Birkinshaw was, until recently, co-general counsel at Steel & Tube. After returning from secondment he, and his co-counsel, suggested to their manager that they would both like to work four days a week. Their employer was open to the idea and it proved to be a successful arrangement.

“Everybody’s situation is different. Be creative and find a solution that works for you and your employer.

“In-house counsel work is different from private practice – my suggestion is to try to find creative solutions and be mindful that you have to encourage and drive behaviour of others in the business to make your work arrangements successful. Try and make a point of leading by example – give plenty of notice to external counsel when you want something done rather than making requests at the last minute and don’t set unreasonable deadlines – set up the right behaviours,” says Chris, who is now working as a senior corporate counsel at Transpower, also working four days a week.

Making it work – at work and at home

Rachael Heslop, General Manager at Claro, says a good IT system is necessary to make it work for part-time/flexible or remote work. Claro’s IT system allows staff to work anywhere, so if there is a sick child, for example, working from home is fine. She says the employer has to be genuinely flexible when buying into that process and that philosophy – “you can’t think that you want a part-timer and then resent it. You need to respect that decision and buy into it. It can’t be a lip service thing.”

Sharing the workload with a partner or spouse tends to help make flexible arrangements work. Christine, who has two small children, now works 32 hours a week for a medium-sized law practice in Dunedin. On the two days that she finishes work at 5:30pm, her husband finishes at 2:30.

Chris Birkinshaw doesn’t work on a Wednesday. His wife also works flexibly and has a different day at home than him. This arrangement means that each of them is able to spend more time with their children and get involved in voluntary work.

The stigma and perception attached to ‘part-time’ workers.

One barrier to working part-time is the stigma. This comes from both sides of the table. Employees sometimes feel that they are out of the loop, as far as knowing what is happening in the office and being able to attend events and CPD activities. One perception from employers is that the employee is less committed or serious about their work.

Jenny Turner
Jenny Turner

Jenny Turner is a senior associate at Wynn Williams in Christchurch and works four days a week – two of them remotely from home. Jenny has a young son and another child on the way and feels very fortunate to be able to work remotely with the degree of flexibility she has. She notes that while there is no resentment from her colleagues, there is some perception in the profession that working from home amounts to sitting on the couch with a laptop or at the kitchen table with a child at foot. Jenny stresses that this is neither the case and nor should it be. Her child is in daycare when she works from home and she has a dedicated and well set-up office in her house as well as IT support.

Amy Prebble from Getaflex says one of her goals is to eliminate the stigma attached to part-time workers and to normalise and mainstream flexible work for everyone.

“Flexible working is not just for working parents – it’s important for everyone. There’s also a need for more professional part-time jobs, not just low-skilled, low-paid ones,” says Amy.

Visibility – Unconscious bias towards remote workers

For remote workers there is often a problem with visibility. Jenny Turner says this has occasionally been a problem for her. On her two days working remotely she says that potentially she will be overlooked when work is allocated.

“I have had a few instances where I have started something on one of my office days and then left it with the partner for review only to discover on my return to the office that the task has been completed by someone in the office rather than using email/phone to advise the changes required and allowing me to complete it. This seems to be generational to a degree and has improved as we have moved to a paperless office and my colleagues became more familiar with my working arrangements and more staff are working remotely and flexibly.”

Amy Prebble says some employers struggle with issues around trust and presenteeism, and prefer to see the employee in the office. Amy says it is necessary to create a culture which challenges that kind of thinking, so that employees are trusted to work remotely, and are judged on their output, not the hours they spend in the office.

Same workload with half the money

While Chris Birkinshaw has the same workload as when he worked five days a week, he has adopted tools to manage his work more efficiently on the days he is working, with the trade-off for a lower salary being the benefit of the extra day off.

Helen Mackay, however, believes that lawyers should be paid for each hour that they work including over their normal hours. At Juno Legal there are no unpaid hours and if work requires the lawyer to flex up and they can accommodate this, it is recognised with full payment for those additional hours.

Anne-Marie McRae is a Senior Associate at Gresson Dorman & Co in Timaru. Her husband Andrew is one of the partners at the firm and Anne-Marie works in his team. Since her first child was born in 2010 she has worked part-time, although she now works close to 40 hours each week, with three days in the office.

Part-time workers get paid for all the hours they do, but only up to 40 hours.

“None of the lawyers at our office get paid overtime for doing more than 40 hours – it’s part of the beast of the job.” She acknowledges there may be some who only work their contracted hours, but Anne-Marie says that you have to put the client first.

“We are providing a service to the client. What service would I want if I was a client? I would want my work done promptly – I would not like to wait around for my relationship property agreement to be drafted, I would want it done. There are also court deadlines to meet and this often requires putting in hours beyond office hours.”

Christine says that managing expectations and her workload are up to her. “I think it’s important to make it clear to everyone – whether employers, co-workers or even clients – that you are there for the hours you work and to decline extra work if you don’t have capacity.”

She also puts her hours on her email signature – then people know why she can’t respond instantly to an email. “I’ve found clients to be very understanding when they know my hours.”

Anita Miller says flexibility works both ways, in the sense that their part-time workers generally have a set number of hours that they work in any given week, but if they are busy they will work longer hours and get paid for those hours.

Stress and time management (working on days off)

Chris Birkinshaw acknowledges that legal work can be very stressful and flexible working arrangements would be a positive way to manage this. Chris has the same workload as before and manages it more effectively – by having a zero-inbox policy (he checks them first thing in the morning), turning email alerts off and using a job board organiser called Trello. “One less day is doable with the same workload – with a mindset of being more productive.”

On his day off Chris only checks his emails a couple of times a day and only responds to urgent matters. He has set clear boundaries with people at work and they know to contact him by phone rather than email if something is urgent.

Anne-Marie McRae, however, admits that she does get stressed and rarely switches off. She is also more than happy to come into work on her day off in order to accommodate client needs. This is easier, she says, being in a small town where the commute is five minutes and parking is free. Anne-Marie says she and her husband are not the kind of people that switch off.

“Andrew and I talk about work – we talk in the morning at breakfast – we talk about work over dinner and we talk about work while we are watching television. We are terrible. I check my emails right up to when I fall asleep and I will probably check them if I wake up in the night – I know that is really bad.”

Helen Mackay says she is very happy in her role as Director of Juno Legal to the point that it doesn’t feel like work. She does lots of interesting work across the in-house legal sector on both a paid and unpaid basis, has a good work/life balance where she balances time with her children, community work and tennis around her work day. Helen says she sets key priorities every morning and once these are achieved she decides whether she is still working productively or whether she should head home for some downtime with the kids and then jump back online in the evening when she is refreshed.

Jenny Turner is prepared to say no to work if she is over-committed; however, for her own peace of mind she checks her emails on her day off.

Career advancement – less exciting legal work?

This can be a drawback for those opting to work part-time. Anne-Marie McRae recently had a review with another partner in the firm who asked her whether she would ultimately want to be a partner. She doesn’t see it as possible at the moment due to her part-time status.

Jenny Turner says she has had no problems with career development – she was promoted while on maternity leave – however, she did choose to change the type of work she was doing. While working full-time Jenny predominantly acted on transactional property law work, which involved multiple fast-moving files. On her return to part-time work, she could see that confirmations, correspondence with clients and solicitors and settlements would need to be completed on her day off.

A woman working at a laptop

Rather than take a team approach to those files and delegate on a piecemeal basis, Jenny has elected to delegate and supervise that work from the outset to ensure those transactions are not affected by her absence from the office and that her clients have continuity of service. Fortunately, there have been some bigger projects such as client asset planning, subdivision work, and other less time critical files that she has been able to work on, “the work I do has definitely changed with my working arrangements.”

While Christine doesn’t feel disadvantaged by working part-time she admits that she probably is “slipping behind” colleagues who work full-time and carry out more networking activities for the firm. She wouldn’t mind moving into a different role which would utilise her other skills. She has also completed a design degree and is attracted to roles that relate to tech disruption, apps to complement law firms, better user interface technology and marketing/development and modernising law firms. She isn’t driven by joining a partnership but does enjoy meeting and helping clients.

Christine says her work is now different to a standard lawyer’s role because she is focusing on ongoing trust work. She now manages and administers the firm’s trusts and has client meetings and contact. She isn’t involved in as many urgent or deadline-based files, which suits being part-time, as there isn’t the time-pressure to prevent her from picking up children from care.

For the employees of Claro this is not an issue as their part-time staff are generally flexible – if there is a hearing they can usually accommodate that.

“We don’t have all the answers – but have a clear bottom line and areas for negotiation. It’s not always 100% perfect, but generally it works well and one of our founding values is to enjoy what we do. We want happy lawyers.”

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Last updated on the 7th June 2019