SmartWorking in Law (Part 1): The Struggle is Real
My story is just one story, I can only speak for myself but hopefully in telling my story we might begin, as an industry, to see the need for work practices which meaningfully reform and evolve in order to ensure that talent is nurtured and appreciated and developed and encouraged—not cast aside and left to fade because of what I view to be irrelevant factors.
Me, Myself & I:
I am 34 years old. I am Mammy to two beautiful boys with a hands-on shift working husband. I am currently on maternity leave, due back to work very soon. I recently asked for some flexibility in working hours on my return to work. For me personally, at this stage in my life, my current 4 day week will not work, mainly because of my round trip daily commute of 2.5-3 hours.
I did my research beforehand—see, the lawyer in me is always prepared— and I was delighted when I came across the Law Society’s Guide to Flexible Working. I took their tips on board and they were quite helpful! I met with work informally first and raised the potential for flexibility. It was not greeted with gusto but I was asked to put my request in writing. I did this, giving work a couple of options for flexibility: suggesting a trial period, giving them data on productivity, loyalty, etc. I said I would be open to any alternative they might have too (for those thinking I wanted my cake and to eat it too). The response was no. No trial period, no flexibility, just no. I was devastated!
This is not an attempt to seek sympathy! I am sure I will find something that will work for me. But it did get me thinking…
“I can’t be the only one in this situation. I can’t be the only one sick of the daily commute. I can’t be the only one who feels their only weekday interaction with their children is to wake them up in the morning and put them back to sleep in the evening. I can’t be the only one who dares to dream that they could find a role which would allow them to continue in their career while also spending quality time with their children!”
At the end of last year, the breakdown of lawyers in Ireland was 52% female, 48% male. Yes, this sounds great ostensibly but after digging a bit deeper, the picture is not as rosy. In a piece for the DSBA entitled “Gender (in) Justice” Professor Irene Lynch Fannon speaks about research she is currently undertaking in my alma mater, UCC, about women in the law. She hits the nail right on the head in this piece noting:
“From the late 1990s onwards female participation in law schools was more than 50%. This represents nearly 30 years worth of graduating classes which started out with more women than men. As we know women are simply not present in these numbers in the legal profession in its entirety. If it were the case that we lost similar numbers of male graduates in the profession over a period of 30 years, this would be addressed as a national emergency.”
I truly believe that failure to meaningfully support women who wish to continue their careers during the childbearing and childrearing years is one of the most significant factors in the exodus of women from law.
So, to paraphrase: “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”
This is my battle cry for change in our profession. Change in the perception of a woman’s value to a company once she has a child, change in the way we view flexibility in work practices as a negative rather than a positive, change in our view that to succeed in law you have to work long hours and weekends.
As a country we are only just coming around to the notion that there are other ways to work aside from the standard model and that these other ways of working can be just as productive, if not more so. Working from home doesn’t mean you are minding your children while trying to work simultaneously—anyone with children will tell you it is hard enough to have a hot cup of tea with them around not to mind trying to review an agreement! SmartWorking—be that flexible working hours, working from home, remote working, job sharing or any hybrid of these—has a place in law in Ireland. Yes, there are constraints unique to law: court attendance, client meetings etc., but there is a way to make it work if willingness is there.
In business output is key—the legal profession is no different. Billable hours are the name of the game, and so if someone can give the same output in a SmartWorking environment as someone at a desk, then surely this should be an option at least. And that is before you factor in the cost saving in having a SmartWorking employee—reduced office space, insurance costs, lower levels of absenteeism—all mean you get more bang for your buck when you make a SmartWorking hire.
Seeds of Positivity:
Thankfully, there are some in the legal world in Ireland championing SmartWorking.
Johnson Hana are a new Irish company providing innovative legal outsourcing to law firms and companies requiring a legal function. They are focused on providing cost effective, innovative legal solutions in areas of law in Ireland which up to now were cumbersome and costly, and they do all this while guaranteeing their people great pay, great work and a great culture including the flexibility to work from your own home!
Pinsent Masons an international law firm which recently entered the Irish legal market also seem to be leading the way in promoting SmartWorking. They recently launched Project Sky which aims to de-stigmatise working reduced hours and taking up more flexible working arrangements. This comes on the back of their 2015 introduction of PM@PM, an online portal for employees taking family leave.
The Future Looks Bright:
Imagine working in your home or a community hub far from the gridlock: no commute, no childcare drop off in the pitch black of early winter morning. Is it really that unattainable? No, real change is possible and within our grasp if we just go for it and a few simple things would really help SmartWorking gain more traction in law:
- Real commitment from the Law Society to helping all firms, particularly smaller firms, get to grips with the challenges around setting up for SmartWorking. For example, running CPD sessions on the practicalities, positives and challenges of SmartWorking employees.
- Introduce similar laws to those in the UK which give all employees the right to request flexible working.
- Increase the scope of the Law and Women programme which, at present, is jointly coordinated by the Law Society and Bar with a specific focus on encouraging the retention of young working mothers in law through SmartWorking measures.
On a wider community level, SmartWorking has the potential to alleviate some of the biggest challenges currently facing us as a nation: housing shortages (particularly in urban areas), climate change, rural regeneration, work life balance, burnout, stress and mental health problems. We all know the problems facing us at the moment, but surely the time has come to think outside the box in addressing these issues. Perhaps Ireland could be the leader in remote and SmartWorking. Imagine the potential for change. Imagine the potential for happiness.
So, if you have a story to tell or a job opportunity for me then please contact me here and I will be back in a few months to let you know how I am doing in my dream smart working job!
Guest Blogger Bio:
Maura Holly is a solicitor living in Kerry.
She is passionate about travelling, handbags, demystifying the law and rural regeneration. In her “spare” time she loves baking, Kerry GAA and photography.
Oh and she’s also open for job offers! 🙂
You can reach her via Maura Holly on LinkedIn