The concept of flexible working arrangements must go beyond allowing lawyers an occasional day to take their work home, writes Aparna Mittal

Corporate culture characterizes the qualities of a work environment such as the way employees work, think and act. Having flexible work hours and work-life balance are often discussed topics, especially in the context of law firms where long working hours are common. At Indian law firms, the question is whether more needs to be done to allow “flexibility” in its truest sense in the workplace.

PRIMARY APPROACH

When we talk about flexibility many law firms today do allow the flexibility to work from home – either on a regular basis (such as after 8pm on a workday) or in special circumstances (such as when a specific request has been made by a lawyer on account of personal reasons). Firms have also invested heavily in infrastructure such as secure systems that facilitate remote login, 24×7 connectivity and access to systems including the server, emails and billing software, and even provide laptops and data cards which can be issued on request.

While these are great initiatives and definitely a step in the right direction, they are limited in scope, as they seem to construe flexibility only in the physical sense. They allow working physically away from office, but perhaps not flexibility in the larger sense of the word. In addition, some argue that such initiatives also tend to extend the work hours indefinitely as they blur the line between office and home.

REVISITING FLEXIBILITY

A broader and perhaps truer meaning of flexibility would entail three essential aspects:

  1. Having predefined alternative arrangements/career paths available as part of established HR policy allowing flexible work hours, both in the short term and long term, for lawyers who have personal constraints (such as caregiver responsibilities, health issues, etc.), or those who endeavour to pursue work-life balance and do not wish to conform to a gruelling work week that often entails 70+ work hours on a weekly basis;
  2. Implementing the above without any significant overall hindrance to the kind of legal work (and exposure) and career advancement provided to the lawyer in question; and
  3. Putting in place systems that remove unconscious bias, or pejorative connotations associated with having chosen such a path.

KEY PERSPECTIVES

While this seems easier said than done, there are some key perspectives from both sides that need to be borne in mind to enable evolving suitable solutions.

Client retention. In an ever expanding legal market, where almost every client wants their work done at the most competitive price and also timelines, law firm managers often bear the direct pressure of client retention. Further, in certain practice areas, given the scope of large mandates including those involving cross-border aspects, the pressure on timelines increases manifold. In such scenarios, managers, who are juggling multiple overlapping commitments and deliverables, shy away from involving lawyers who have expressed a need for flexibility.

Perception issues/peer pressure. Being inherently competitive, lawyers working at law firms also have to deal with parameters of performance that are perceived to be indicative of their true professional capabilities or merit. Such parameters may not per se be specified or intentional from the management’s side, but most lawyers (especially the younger ones), nevertheless, feel the peer pressure to conform to them. Some such parameters that over time have gained a lot of perceived importance include overall time within which one was elevated to partnership, number of overall billable hours clocked in a year, frequency with which one burns the midnight oil at work, any long periods of leave (albeit for legitimate reasons), regularly working through weekends for routine office work, etc. While not wishing to take away from those who have managed to perform well along these parameters, it is necessary to point out the overwhelming peer pressure and pejorative perception such parameters create in the workplace, especially on younger lawyers, and hence make a case for addressing such parameters.

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APARNA MITTAL is the founder of Samāna Centre for Gender, Policy and Law (www.samanacentre.com), which advises organizations on gender mainstreaming in philanthropic/CSR activities; gender equality, diversity and capacity building through HR policies; and leads selective interventions in law and policy related to gender. She has more than 12 years of experience as a corporate lawyer and has worked as a partner at leading Indian law firms. Mittal can be contacted at aparnamittal@samanacentre.com