It was over the 2014/5 Christmas break that Mark Lowndes, managing partner of corporate and commercial law specialist firm Lowndes, had an epiphany of sorts.
“I have been thinking for a long time about what to do to engage with some of the experienced lawyers around town who need to balance family obligations with work.
“And I guess I got stuck for many years on the concept that we don’t have three day a week clients, so how do you service full-time, sophisticated, busy clients with people who spend two days a week at home? I was thinking about that, and reading a lot, and trying to see what the solutions were – there’s job sharing and various other approaches, but the solutions didn’t always seem to work well.”
This was particularly so in the corporate law field, Lowndes told NZLawyer
“If you’re in the middle of an M&A transaction or some litigation, it’s urgent, it’s now, the clients are demanding. If you’re selling someone’s life work for tens of millions of dollars, they want pretty intense attention to their file.”
Then it struck him: with the amount of travel he does, he was already, in effect, working flexibly himself.
“I can be out of the office three months or more a year. But I have been successful in making sure that has no impact on my clients.
“Technology of course plays a big part. When I’m travelling, there is a lot of legal work I do and the client has no idea where I am or what hours I am working - so that was a sort of an epiphany.”
So the firm approached recruiters early in the year with the goal of hiring flexible workers.
“What we said was, ‘we are not so interested in the Monday, Thursday, Friday’ - because we still have the problem with the intensity of our type of work. What we are saying is, ‘if you can make things relatively invisible to clients – and the internal clients, partners and so on – you tell us what percentage of a full time job you want to do, and as long as you keep your internal and external clients happy, and as long as you’re financially hitting reasonable numbers’ - it’s virtually immaterial to us when somebody is working, or where they’re working.”
Months down the track and the firm has successfully engaged three lawyers working under flexible practices.
The programme was initially dubbed Mothers in Law, but has since been renamed Parents in Law – as one of their flexible workers is male.
“One of the things is we have found really high quality people through the programme,” Lowndes said.
“I am actually surprised. It has been seamless – I am not aware of a single problem. And I congratulate those three, because they’ve taken a step into the unknown, and they’ve taken on the commitment to make it invisible to clients. And they’ve managed to juggle things to make it work, so all credit to them. They’ve nailed it. And I know that probably is not easy.
Technology plays a big part in that, he said.
“You have really good remote working software now, with virtual PCs, so whether you’re connecting in from the office, or from home, from your holiday home or while travelling, you’re actually connecting to the same virtual PC. It means that working at home or working remotely is just as good, in many ways, as working in the office.”
Tips for other firms
Lowndes said other firms considering flexible working practices should “just do it”.
“There are so many talented lawyers out there who want to have a liveable balance between parenting, for example, or whatever other family responsibilities they have, and their professional practice. This way they don’t have to make sacrifices in their professional life.”
His key three tips?
“You need mature, fair people; good remote working technology; and good communication.”