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Is the legal sector ready for a four-day week?

Could a four day week ever work for law firms?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Four day work weeks, and three day weekends. These are terms spoken of in hushed whispers by office workers the world over. Meanwhile, managers fret about cutting business hours for no obvious immediate gain. During the election, Labour’s tantalising promise was the subject of heated debate and tabloid derision. Many have labelled the practice an unrealistic fantasy, but in some cases, trials of four-day workweeks have been shown to increase productivity by as much as 40%. So the question remains, is it actually effective? And could a four day week for law firms ever become a reality?

What are the potential benefits of a four day week to your firm?

The fact is, not all workplaces are created equal. One answer to making this practice work is the idea of overlapping shift patterns to provide cover for the extra day off, but not all businesses have the staffing to make this work. Not all business sectors work the same way. So while the finance company Perpetual Guardian has caused a stir by successfully switching over its 240 staff to a four-day model, that might not work for a different business in its own unique circumstances.

What fits for a New Zealand-based finance company might not for what is solely a law firm in another country. Or that what works for an office’s general staff might not suit the people working in their in-house legal department. The legal sector is one of the most demanding in the UK and the world as a whole. Lawyers must prepare complex case files, appear in court, and maintain availability for their clients. So how might a four day work week be implemented in a law firm?

Portcullis Legals, a Plymouth-based firm, might have the answer. They have extended office hours into the evening and given their staff a pay-rise to make sure their salaries aren’t affected.

how would a four day week work for law firms? Could practice spaces become a lot quieter on a Friday some day soon?
What would a four day week look like for law firms? Pie in the sky, or a real possibility with a bit of planning?

In a recent interview, Trevor Worth, managing director of Portcullis Legals, said: ‘I’ve contacted businesses far and wide to find out the benefits and pitfalls of the four-day week, working with academics and industry leaders to find out the best way to apply the four-day week to Portcullis. The response has been extraordinary and there’s a real passion to help other firms achieve a happier working week for their staff.’

After having some time to adjust, Portcullis’s staff are ‘definitely better rested and more motivated,’ according to Yasmin Serter of the firm’s client services team. ‘That means we really look forward to coming to work and meeting the people we’re trying to help, which can only be a good thing for the service we provide.’

So apparently it works. But before you go setting your Friday morning alarm two hours later, remember that one firm doesn’t make a representative sample, and that short-term employee satisfaction is far from the only metric for success. Longer workdays are not without issues of their own.

Effects of longer days on employee engagement

Going from an eight-hour work day to a ten-hour one can arguably lead to an increase in stress and a decrease in productivity. When nurses in Sweden took part in a two-year study on six-hour workdays, they reported high levels of satisfaction–so much so that a nurse interviewed by BBC strongly lamented the return to her old eight-hour a day schedule:

‘I feel that I am more tired than I was before. During the trial, all the staff had more energy. I could see that everybody was happy.’

Is a four day week possible for the those in the legal sector?
Could your firm be implementing a four day week in the next 3-5 years?

Employee engagement and wellbeing: Fewer days versus fewer hours

The six-hour work day and four day work week are two different approaches to accomplishing the same goal: Reduce work hours in order to improve employee wellbeing. But the six-hour day is predicated on the idea that six focused hours yield more substantial results than an eight-hour day that is less focused. After so much time, an employee’s attention span begins to falter, or so the train of thought goes.

Harvard Business Review published an article in 2018 in which the author described testing the effect of a six-hour work day on employee engagement using his Melbourne team as guinea pigs:

‘The shorter workday forced the team to prioritize effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day. The team maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work, with people reporting an improved mental state, and that they had more time for rest, family, friends, and other endeavors.’

Furthermore, a surgical practice in Sweden that implemented reduced daily hours ended up performing 20% more procedures, even ones that would have previously been transferred to other facilities. But if that’s true, then what does it say about a four day work week that extends day-to-day office hours even further?

But what about law firms?

A four-day week might be accomplished in a law firm by having the fee-earning staff member present, physically or virtually, for ten hours a day. But those individual days would probably be more tiring, and on top of that, urgent clients requiring out-of-hours assistance may well cut into the supposed three days off and render the whole point moot.

But in these firms, lawyers often work past standard opening hours even without the promise of a Friday-morning lie-in. In a time-sheet oriented office, this can make an employee look good to the company, even if their productivity during that time is questionable.

‘Presenteeism,’ as it is known, can already be an issue, and one that may well be exacerbated by an extended hours approach. If staff are already staying past their expected hours and being unproductive during that time, then it could be argued that extending office hours for the sake of an extra day off may compound that issue.

Nevertheless, feedback from the case studies we have looked at are largely positive, both in regards to overall productivity and employee satisfaction. The other potential beneficial aspects of a four-day week aren’t inconsiderable either. The fact that other fee-earners could handle one lawyer’s client on their day off could actually create multiple opportunities for client contact, increasing satisfaction and positive feedback by making them feel taken care of. On top of that, employees having more interaction with clients may in turn be beneficial to staff engagement.

In a recent interview, Debbie Epstein Henry, a legal consultant and co-founder of Bliss Lawyers, suggested the idea of job sharing as a possible solution to the idea of a four-day work week, and as a means to deal with the stigma and other difficulties often attached to lawyers taking time off. According to Henry, two mid-level associates could be assigned to the same case, each allowing the other to take their allotted time off without worry.

Plus, with a slightly larger number of staff working on overlapping four-day schedules, the possibility opens up for office hours to actually be increased rather than reduced. It also should not be ignored that shorter, more flexible work weeks could be incredibly advantageous in terms of recruitment and employee retention.

Going back to Perpetual Guardian, the New Zealand finance company mentioned above, researchers from Auckland University studying the trial found the four-day work week to be beneficial to staff engagement and retention. Jarrod Haar, a professor of human resource management who studied the findings, said:

‘Beyond wellbeing, employees reported their teams were stronger and functioned better together, more satisfied with their jobs, more engaged and they felt their work had greater meaning. They also reported being more committed to the organisation and less likely to look elsewhere for a job.’

And no matter what you think of it, the fact remains that the number of businesses offering shorter work weeks is rising, and for potential employers, it’s just another perk to compete against. According to a survey in April by the Society for Human Resource Management:

‘Fifteen percent of organizations offer four-day workweeks of 32 hours or less to at least some employees, up from 13% in 2017.’ No two legal offices are alike. From in-house departments to big multi-partner firms, every organisation has its own needs and hurdles. But shorter working weeks are quickly becoming an attractive prospect to potential employees, and with a growing body of positive findings and personal testimonies, one might do well not to dismiss the idea out of hand.

Research Associate