Agile working is right at the top of the agenda for many employers who recognise that it can help create a more effective organisation, delivering better business performance and greater customer satisfaction.
It also provides employees with the freedom to choose where, when and how often they work – newly empowered, they have greater control over their work-life balance.
Having only recently launched various agile working initiatives, big law firms have been late in the game. But most of their efforts have had a limited impact: lawyers still have to work long hours in an office, closely supervised.
According to the Best Employers Report 2016, 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 transparent: despite the growing uberisation of legal practice, they still operate an analogue model in a digital age.
When traditional law firms offer occasional days working from home, or at best a four-day week, it is not true agile working. It is still rigid – just a bit less so.
Agile working means being fully agile: complete flexibility that suits both employer and employee. This requires a flexible view when looking at work in terms of time and place and a recalibrated focus on performance and outcomes.
So what are the key messages for law firms? Work is an activity, not a place. This means agile working can be anytime, any place, anywhere. Therefore, lawyers must be free to choose when, where and how often they work, not the law firm.
To enable them to do this necessitates maximum use of available technology and minimum dependence on location. Overall, it significantly motivates the individual lawyer.
Agile working also requires a different way of looking at the world. To embrace innovation, it must reflect how start-ups, scale-ups and entrepreneurs operate.
Law firms need to think and act like they do so that they can share their values and better understand their clients’ businesses and markets.
Most benefits of agile working in a virtual law firm are self-evident: reduced costs, increased productivity and efficiency, greater autonomy, less hierarchy, and longer business hours to serve our clients from a global platform.
Others are less obvious: more millennial values in the workplace, improved lawyer performance, plus an enhanced ability to attract and retain high quality lawyers with increased motivation, engagement and loyalty.
An improved work life balance and increased autonomy – less stress and more control – creates many other benefits, above all an improvement in wellbeing, health and happiness. When the resolute focus on billable hours vanishes alongside being tied to one location, agile working refreshes, liberates, and inspires.
Although less apparently revenue focused, the agile working model ironically delivers more revenue. But the principal difference between the lawyer in a traditional firm and an agile working lawyer comes down to trust: they are trusted to do their job.
Trust provides increased engagement. It can be argued that absence of flexibility demonstrates an absence of trust.
Everything that law firms do today will soon change. Continuing to do things in exactly the way that they have always been done cannot determine how they are run in the future: think how much Uber has changed things since it started in March 2009.
A new collaborative approach is needed in the legal industry, initiated by lawyers who genuinely care about the community.
Critical to the future of legal services as much as it is in the world outside, agile working is not a panacea: it creates many practical problems.
Firms must be ready to embrace and resolve them ethically and dynamically in delivering much needed change to 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.