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October 17, 2014

Mishcon’s flexi-time model could be a gift – or a curse

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The recent announcement from Mishcon de Reya managing partner Kevin Gold that the firm is to do away with such bourgeois considerations as contracted working hours and limited holidays has met with mixed reactions. While some lawyers eye their leave sheets and wail “IT’S NOT FAAAAAAAAIR!” others wonder whether the move might result in anxious solicitors working 60 hour weeks and never going on leave.

Mishcon, which recently voted for LLP status and is about to conflate its four offices into one super-office on Kingsway, is offering lawyers the power to make two choices: how much they work, and how much time they have off.

Sounds marvellous, right? No Monday morning misery with nose pressed into the greasy armpit of fellow commuters, no more miserable late nights in the office while the rest of the firm’s already halfway up the Shard on their way to Friday cocktails.

Life being nothing but swings and roundabouts, such total flexi-working is bound to be six of one, half a dozen of the other. And so here are the top five perks of flexible working Mishcon-style, and (before you all get too excited) the top five drawbacks.

The Perks

1.     Holiday when you want it

Who has not grimly cursed colleagues who every year book out that precious August fortnight six months in advance, making it impossible for others to get a look-in? Unlimited holidays do away with such annoyances, not to mention the possibility of working a full year only to vanish for six months to exotic climes.

2.     Build-your-own working week

Humans are a variegated species, and lawyers (being mostly human) are no different. Some thrive on the 6am shift, others emerge sleepily into life at 12pm after being hooked to an IV drip at Caffè Nero. Allowing lawyers to choose not only how many hours they work, but when they work them, could allow the working week to be designed around their strengths.

3.     Easing in the new parent

New parents (and new mothers most of all) have long found it difficult, if not downright impossible, to return to the cut-and-thrust of the legal workplace. Negotiating the frequently Kafka-esque round of childcare alongside a rigid working timetable is enough to drive the sanest person 100 per cent round the bend. Enabling parents to arrange working hours around family needs would provide a vast boost of morale, and likely a vertiginous increase in job applications.

4.     Working from home

Look, this is the twenty-first century. True, we’re sadly deficient on the hover-board and silver spacesuits front, but to all intents and purposes the world is our office. What with wi-fi, videoconferencing, the cloud, eDisclosure, eDiscovery and what have you, there’s nothing to prevent you from working in your favourite café, your living room, or even (to quote an entirely random and not-at-all recent example) in bed with the cat on your lap catching up on the Archers omnibus with the electric blanket set to ‘tropical’ (You are SO busted. –Ed.).

5.     Part time working and job sharing

Job sharing is an increasingly attractive option for employers, leaving them able to offer part-time hours to valued staff without having to scrabble about for a new recruit. Under the Mishcon model, lawyers looking to downsize their hours and responsibilities can take charge of their career, and possibly even find a fellow worker to share a full-time role, keeping clients content.

The Drawbacks

1.     You still have a job, you know

Here’s the killer: Mishcon’s main stipulation is, naturally enough, that the clients come first. Lawyers can take what leave they like, when they like it, but their work must not suffer. To all intents and purposes clients should remain oblivious to the changed working pattern, save perhaps for noting a certain lightness of spirit in their lawyer. There’s the rub – taking advantage of super-flexi-time is all very well, but the clients and their demands do not go away. And some observers have wondered whether the Mishcon model might have a negative effect, making lawyers too anxious to take necessary time away.

2.     Home? What home?

As anyone who regularly works from home will tell you: it’s not all sunshine and candyfloss. Sure, the lure of a lie-in and then turning to your laptop over a late breakfast is a strong one, and not to be dismissed, but there’s a real risk of losing the division between home and work life. Working from home requires disciplined time-management, or before you know it you think nothing of drafting a briefing at 9.30pm on a Sunday. In the bath. While your guests are wondering where you are.

3.     Communication breakdown

Yes, everyone has a mobile. Yes, we are all on email 24/7. But what might seem to you a perfectly reasonable hour to contact a client or colleague might well appear madly inconvenient to them. The Mishcon model might feasibly allow you to work during your peak productivity period of 5pm to 11pm, but who else will be available then? The client comes first – and they may well be displeased to hear that their office hours coincide with your daily siesta. Then there’s the thorny question of the out-of-office response: envisage a client desperate for advice anxiously pressing refresh, only to receive repeated assurances that you’ll be back in the office the day before yesterday.

4.     Supervision remains non negotiable

Now more than ever lawyers need – and are obliged to have – effective supervision. Whilst emails and phone conferences can go a long way towards maintaining a good supervisory relationship, there really is no substitute for face-to-face meetings, or (even better) working alongside each other. When building your flexible week, taking into account your supervisory needs and responsibilities should be absolute top priority. Yes, even above getting that special seat on the train with the mysterious extra inch of leg room.

5.     There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’

There’s no getting around the fact that one of the greatest assets of a successful firm is effective team working. When it comes to the big deals and the really meaty litigation, pulling together makes the difference between triumph and disaster. Mishcon-style working, misused, could potentially fracture the chemistry that comes with team-working at its best. Anyone toying with the idea of implementing total flexi-time should be mindful of the need to protect the co-operation and sharing of ideas that characterises a truly great firm. SP

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