Richard Nelson, Senior Partner at Richard Nelson LLP, discusses the modern day pressures of a legal firm and offers the remote-working consultancy model as a tangible alternative and solution.
It is often said that as solicitors we thrive on pressure and need the stress of deadlines and challenges to spur us on to provide results. The reality is that most senior lawyers are not inspired by the pressures placed upon them in modern practice, particularly within the large firms which are run on a remorseless accountancy basis.
It is perhaps in this regard that modern practice is the furthest removed from what was the case twenty or thirty years ago. It should be the case that there is room for variety and choice between the different styles of practice. However, the reality is that, in most cases, the choice or opportunity to have a different approach cannot exist within the same firm that is constantly monitoring its financial performance.
Please do not misunderstand my sentiment here; businesses exist by making a profit. The difficulty is that enjoyment and pride in looking after a client, i.e. providing a caring service and being a rainmaker, often does not sit comfortably alongside the need to hit ever higher fee targets.
As members of a legal firm, solicitors have to contribute, and fee income is one measure of their contribution. However, more senior solicitors in particular, may be willing to trade some income in order to regain control of their own lives.
This does not have to result in a lowering of client care standards nor in a loss of expertise and wisdom. There are, in fact, significant benefits to be gained in your professional life from taking more time for yourself. It does, however, involve a re-evaluation of what you want out of practice and the re-establishment of the enjoyment and fulfilment of the aspects you find important.
Most solicitors want to achieve some form of flexibility in their working life to allow for a more healthy work-life balance. This might mean being free to play golf when they wish to, without their business partners criticising them for being away from their desk, or the opportunity to have more holiday or to spend more time with their grandchildren.
Modern practice can be something of a treadmill. Financial targets, attendance at meetings, the search for corporate clients, the work in progress and billing analysis, the pressure from the management, the demands of the potential partner, and the other partners sitting in judgment on your contribution - these are all stressful elements of the modern firm, especially when considering that many lawyers only want to provide legal services to the best of their ability and to look after clients.
These stressful factors used to be evident only in the larger firms, but are now commonplace, if not the norm, for all firms.
So is it not time now to stand back and re-evaluate? Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Few solicitors allow themselves time to stand back and look at what they are doing because of the pressure to live up to expectations, and indeed to focus on the next job coming in. It is sometimes only over a summer holiday (and then only if the mobile phone has been dropped in the sea and doesn’t work!) that solicitors allow themselves the time to reflect on what it is they really want out of their practising career.
Those being pushed out of partnership towards a consultancy, and a cut-off date for retirement, may wish to work fewer hours in the week or indeed only to look after a core group of clients who provide them with regular work. Those who have younger grandchildren may realise that they were not able to devote the time to their own children because of pressures of work, and do not want to repeat the mistake. Many solicitors will place free time, flexibility, and a degree of autonomy, over the need to earn as much money as possible to fuel the family’s lifestyle.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are many solicitors returning to work after parental leave who need a degree of flexibility and the ability to be available for their children. This leaves them free only to work at times that suit them, rather than to keep the rigid hours that are required by the normal law firm.
In short, there is life after the treadmill and life outside targets. Solicitors are allowed to indulge themselves and there is no shame to wish to balance the work-life commitments as they want.
It is no secret in the wider business world that taking time off has noticeable benefits for your productivity and the quality of your work. A study conducted in the US in 2014 found that employers recognised that time off made employees more focused and dedicated, and the employees themselves reported feeling renewed and refreshed, and more ready to work after a holiday.
Solicitors who actively pursue a better work life balance, making time for holidays and relaxation, will see those same benefits, and your clients will thank you for it. If you are relaxed and refreshed at work, you will be much better equipped to deal with the next job than if you are tired and stressed.
Because of the benefits that a better work-life balance will have for your work, there is still room for the solicitor who wishes to seek a better lifestyle, whilst still earning the money you need to afford that lifestyle. The key is to recognise the need for a change in how you work and to act on that need.