Could a four-day week work for the legal sector?

February 27, 2023

Could a four-day week work for the legal sector?

Should law firms embrace the four-day week? This is the question that the profession was asking itself last week as the results of the world’s largest trial of a four-day week were published.

The pilot program, conducted in the UK by non-profit organisation 4 Day Week Global, guided over 60 companies and almost 3,000 workers through a six-month trial of a four-day week, with no loss of pay for workers. Staff worked 80% of their hours, for 100% pay. More than 91 companies and around 3,500 employees have taken part in the pilot so far.

And what were the results? The feedback was overwhelmingly positive – with the proof of the pudding being that 91% of the companies involved said they would definitely continue with the new way of working, and another 4% said they were ‘leaning towards’ doing so.

Companies rated their overall experience of the trials an average of 8.5/10, with business productivity and business performance each scoring 7.5/10. Revenue rose by 35% over the trial periods when compared to similar periods from the previous year, and hiring went up, while absenteeism went down.

The health and well-being of employees also improved, with significant increases observed in physical and mental health, time spent exercising, and overall life and job satisfaction. Rates of stress, burnout and fatigue all fell, while problems with sleep declined.

With such positive outcomes, every sector must now be asking itself if the four-day week could work for them – and that includes the legal industry. But as the Law Society Gazette reported last week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, programs director of Four Day Week Global, acknowledged that the ‘cultural norms’ in the legal profession and the ‘habits created by billable hours’ made the four-day week a particular challenge for lawyers; and indeed no law firms were willing to take part in the pilot scheme.

So is the four-day week something that the profession could adapt to? The first question is whether lawyers themselves would actually want to do so. To answer that, you only need to look at the growth of ‘virtual’ law firms, which – according to a press release from accountancy firm Hazlewoods last week, have now reached record levels. There were 1,909 such firms in operation in October 2022, up from 1,875 the previous year. This clearly shows a desire within the profession for a better work / life balance and more control over how lawyers work.

Meanwhile, it can no longer be said that the legal profession is incapable of radical change in working systems – because we have seen how successfully law firms moved to remote (and now hybrid) working due to the pandemic.

But working from home, which is now the norm for many lawyers for at least a couple of days a week, is not the same as having one day of the week where lawyers are not working at all, for the same pay. Here, we start to encounter barriers.

Firstly, the traditional law firm financial model is built around billing targets; so taking a full working day out of the equation every week is distinctly unappealing to managing partners.

Then there is the nature of the work. Some practice areas, involving large teams of transactional lawyers – such as corporate – might be better suited to adapting to a four-day week. But given that the courts themselves are operating five days a week, other parts of the profession would find it much more difficult.

Finally, there is the issue of the client relationship. If you make a GP appointment, you might be happy to see whichever GP is available at the surgery at that time. But when it comes to legal advice, clients usually expect to see the individual lawyer with whom they have an existing relationship.

None of these barriers to the four-day week are truly insurmountable, particularly if you have good systems in place to ensure smooth handover between lawyers. And as the pilot results showed, the gains in terms of productivity and employee wellbeing can be considerable.

But my own sense is that if anything, lawyers’ working hours are likely to be going up, not down, in the near future. With a shortage of qualified lawyers, competition for talent is currently very fierce – with the result that lawyers’ salary levels are very high at the moment. Given the economic climate, many firms are unable to fund these salary costs by increasing their charge-out rates, because clients will be unable or unwilling to pay them. So the only way to square the circle will be to expect lawyers to increase their billable hours – by working more, not less.

So while the legal profession may ultimately embrace the benefits of the four-day week, the unfortunate reality is that it is unlikely to start doing so any time soon.

February 27, 2023