Uberisation: The business of law and agile working

Agile working has become a norm for many employers. They appreciate that it can help to create a more efficient and effective organisation, delivering improved business performance as well as greater customer satisfaction. 

For millions of employees, agile working is also very high on their wish list. The reason is simple: it provides them with the freedom to choose where, when and how often they work. In pursuit of that elusive work-life balance, they feel more empowered as they have more control over their working lives.  

Recent figures published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development show that 86 per cent of employers in the public sector offer part-time working, 69 per cent offer job shares while 65 per cent offer flexitime. It’s a similar story in the voluntary sector: 84 per cent of employers offer part-time working, while job shares are allowed by 49 per cent with 56 per cent using flexitime. By contrast, figures are much lower for private sector companies: 70 per cent offer part-time working, 25 per cent job shares and 33 per cent flexitime. No comprehensive figures are available for big law firms. But without doubt, those numbers would all be substantially lower. 

It comes as no surprise given that many of them have been reluctant adopters of the idea. That was until recently when a number of them started to chase headlines by launching a range of agile working initiatives. But so far, many of their belated efforts have had a pretty limited impact: most of their lawyers have no choice but to work long hours, under close supervision 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.” In spite of the growing uberisation of legal services, most firms still operate under an analogue model in a distinctly digital age.  

Many traditional law firms might argue that the odd day working from home or even a four-day week is agile working. It is not. A slightly flexible fringe still leaves a completely rigid centre. They have not yet accepted that true agile working means what it says on the tin: being completely agile. Total flexibility that suits both the employer and the employee, which requires an innovative, open approach in terms of how they think about work when it comes to time and place. 

In turn, this means adjusting their focus on performance and outcomes.  To change their mindset about agile working, traditional law firms should include various factors into their thinking, especially in recognising that work is an activity, not a place. They also need to understand that it is Martini-like: anytime, any place, anywhere. Essential in the mix is that lawyers must be free to choose when, where and how often they work, not the law firm. To guarantee this requires maximum use of every available relevant technology and minimum use of a fixed location. Together, these ingredients produce lawyers who are much more motivated and empowered: every law firm needs to understand what a considerable benefit this can provide for their business.  

Complete acceptance of the agile working model also demands a different way of looking at the world, one which embraces every beneficial aspect of IT and innovation. The best place to look for a successful model in operation is disruptive growth companies: start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs. The more law firms mirror some of what they do and in particular, how they do it, the closer they will be to understanding their clients that much better. 

Only once that Rubicon is crossed can law firms of the future begin to share fully in their values and really understand how the markets in which they are engaged truly operate. In the process, they acquire a much better understanding of exactly what their clients need in legal advice.  

Some of the advantages of agile working in a virtual law firm are self-evident: reduced costs, increased productivity and efficiency, greater autonomy, less hierarchy, and an increased ability to provide longer business hours to serve our clients from a global platform. Others may be less obvious: enhanced lawyer performance, millennial values taking shape in the workplace, alongside a greater ability to attract and retain more high quality lawyers who are more personally engaged and motivated as a consequence. 

They also feel more loyal to the firm. Above everything, lawyers experience greater autonomy and an improved work life balance. Less stress and more control creates other benefits too, particularly a general improvement health, happiness and wellbeing. When the total focus on billable hours disappears and lawyers are not tied to a single office location, agile working can refresh, liberate and inspire.  

Despite being less apparently revenue focused, agile working ironically produces more revenue because lawyers are more productive. But the most significant difference between a lawyer in a big traditional firm and his agile counterpart at a virtual firm comes down to trust: they are trusted to do their job by themselves, on their own, without the need for constant supervision. Trust delivers autonomy which leads to greater engagement, whereas very limited flexibility shows very limited trust by the employer in the employee.  

Agile working can offer lawyers a great deal, providing them with millennial values just like their clients. At the same time, the continued pace of technological change and the growth of AI means that almost everything that law firms do will change. So continuing to do things just as they have always been done cannot determine how they will be managed in the future: remember Uber only started in March 2009. 

The legal sector needs to be similarly recalibrated with a focus on ethical and community focused values. Of course, agile working is not a panacea. Inevitably, it is fast becoming a critical element in the provision of legal services as much as it is in the wider world, but it also presents an assortment of practical challenges. Law firms must be ready to embrace and resolve them, ethically and effectively, so that they can provide the necessary impetus to deliver much needed change to what remains a very traditional business.    

Alex McPherson is a Co-Founder of Ignition Law

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