Could a four day week ever work for law firms?
Updated 25th September 2022
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%. And, right now in the UK, there's a six month trial for 4-day weeks in progress that's showing promising results. So we know there's hope in general, but 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.
Portcullis Legals found that their employees were, on the whole, better rested and more motivated. But one example isn't necessarily proof, so what else have we got?
Well, a Henley Business School study found that 250 law firms that switched to a 4-day week saved an estimated £92 billion a year because employees were less stressed, happier, and took fewer sick days. So, while the idea was once unthinkable, it seems now that more and more firms are getting on board with the idea. Even Dentons, arguably the largest firm in the world, implemented 4-day weeks in response to the pandemic.
Effects of longer days on employee engagement
Some have suggested employers hedge their bets with compressed hours rather than proper four day week for law firms. But a sudden increase in the length of a work day 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.'
This highlights how employees' lives can be seriously affected by the decisions of higher-ups. When it comes to major policy shifts like this, it's always best to check in with employees and gauge their response before you reach a final decision.
Employee engagement and wellbeing: Fewer days versus fewer hours
The six-hour work day and four day week for law firms 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?
You could manage a four day week for law firms 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.
Firms already struggle with presenteeism. An extended hours approach could easily exacerbate it. 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.
There's some hope for a four day week for law firms
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.
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. 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. If you're still unsure what to think, why not use our bespoke sentiment analysis tool to figure out how your people feel about it?