Could the 4-day week ever work for law firms?

Could the introduction of 4-day working weeks be a welcome antidote to the culture of overwork in the legal industry, or is the concept of a condensed week unfeasible for law firms? We discuss the facts and give guidance to the firms who might be weighing up the move…

Back in 2022, a pioneering experiment was making headlines in the professional world, as 61 UK companies trialed a four-day working week with 100% pay. The trial has widely been considered a success, with many positive impacts such as higher productivity and a 1.4% rise in revenue, a 57% reduction in staff attrition rates, and general improvement in work-life balance and mental well-being for the professionals involved. With the majority of the companies involved in the experiment opting to continue with this working pattern going forward, many wondered if other companies would soon follow suit and trial the 4-day working week for themselves.

It could be argued that the legal sector is one of the industries that would benefit most from adopting a more lenient work pattern and advocating for better balance for its workforce; burnout and overwork are common risk factors for legal professionals, with numerous studies indicating that mental health problems are a common occurrence within the profession. In October, LawCare reported a 24% increase in the number of legal professionals reaching out to them for support, stating that ‘legal professionals are finding themselves overwhelmed and stressed amid heavy workloads, unrealistic targets and a global financial crisis.’

But, for many professionals within the legal sector, the concept of a 4-day working week feels like a fantasy: the accepted norm of working unconventional hours, the emphasis on billable work, as well as the general culture within the industry all lend themselves to working a longer week rather than a shorter one. Particularly at larger corporate firms, clients will expect a certain level of service for the fees that they pay, so ensuring that the client service level remains at a high standard could be another blocker. More than this, there is also an argument that the four-day working week could merely act as an inhibitor for busy legal professionals, who would feel compelled to try and condense their already oversubscribed schedules into a smaller time frame, thus increasing the likelihood of work-related stress, anxiety, and burnout, as well as the probability of working outside of set days and hours regardless of the measures in place. All of this could explain why the campaign group behind the 4-day week trial couldn’t find a law firm that was willing to participate in the pilot.

However, that’s not to say that there hasn’t been any interest in the concept from the industry…

Just this week, trailblazing Glasgow-headquartered firm Complete Clarity Solicitors and Simplicity Legal announced that they are trialing a non-compulsory condensed 4-day week for 6 months, and have reported an uptake of 71% from their workforce. They also stated that the decision to implement the trial was off the back of the recent Law Society ‘Profile of the Profession’ findings, which reported that 42% of lawyers had considered leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement, and 45% aspire to a better work/life balance.

For firms that are keen to introduce a more flexible model, there are considerations to keep in mind; perhaps, as Marcin Durlak of IMD suggests, imposing an enforced 4-day week is not the way to go, but perhaps it would be better to introduce a truly flexible model whereby staff can work a set number of hours, but set the parameters of when and where they work on their terms. The key to successfully making changes to work models is to ensure that the terms of the new policies are inclusive to all, set out clearly and concisely, and flexible to be adapted on a case-by-case basis where necessary.

Our takeaway…

The move to a more flexible and wellbeing-oriented way of working marks a huge shift in the culture of the industry and, while some firms are choosing to adapt, others may take longer to be persuaded. But there’s no denying that those pioneering firms that choose to overhaul the industry norms by centering employee wellbeing and cultures of balance are going to give themselves an unequivocal advantage when it comes to securing top talent.

For all industries, building an engaged pipeline of talent to safeguard the future of the industry must be a priority and, whilst there is no shortage of candidates entering the legal industry, these individuals will likely have a very different set of ideals and expectations when it comes to the culture of the firms they want to work within. It’s no secret that future generations are likely to prioritise their work-life balance more highly than those that came before, and as mindsets change, all professionals in the industry can benefit from the changes they bring around.

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