A law unto themselves

JusticeInnovative companies and individuals are challenging traditional ways of working in the legal sector, with benefits for clients and workers. Journalist Heather Greig-Smith talks to some of the lawyers who are leading change.

The legal sector is notorious for long hours. Convinced that clients need round the clock access and drawn into expensive structures that depend on maximising billable hours, law firms are not renowned for their flexibility. However, there are companies breaking that mould.

In 2010 entrepreneur Dana Denis-Smith hit on an innovative way of supplying legal services that were increasingly going offshore. An ex-lawyer, she saw first-hand the large numbers of women leaving City law firms when they had children. She set up Obelisk to pool that talent and now offers an ultra-flexible, highly-skilled resource of 600 lawyers for clients such as BT.

Obelisk provides in-house and remote services, with many lawyers working from home. “They can work as much as they want to work; it’s completely flexible,” says Dana.

She has challenged the assumption that law is an all or nothing profession. “It is a myth that the only way you can deliver legal work is by being in the office all hours,” she says. The key to Obelisk’s success is strong management and communication. “It’s a very different management style. You have to be responsive and lead rather than wait for things to happen.”

While Obelisk focuses on non-advisory work, it isn’t the only company re-thinking tradition. In 2007 Janvi Patel and business partner Denise Nurse launched Halebury, a firm of 23 top-level lawyers who advise clients from Expedia to BSkyB. They have control over when, how and where they work.

Janvi says flexibility has been a by-product of the model. “The logic wasn’t ‘let’s create a flexible model’ it was ‘what does the market need?’” Crucially, Halebury offers flexibility and control to both lawyers and clients, who are looking for ways of reducing their legal costs but need expertise, often to complement in-house teams.

“When you get to the senior end of the market there is less and less flexibility and control of your career, and so the lawyers who come to work at Halebury value the opportunity to forge their own paths,” says Janvi. “I don’t need to enforce hours or set targets. They do what they want to do and we help them set pricing and business plans.”

Working flexibly still means hard work. “They still work long hours when needed. They just have control. They’ll work flat out to the year-end but for the next two weeks I won’t hear from them. I don’t mind and they don’t mind.”

Obelisk and Halebury are both examples of legal firms with new business structures, however flexibility is possible in traditional law firms too. Julia Pyke, Partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, has managed to forge her own path in private practice. She was made Partner while working part-time but says flexibility means working hard and being available.

“You have to emotionally engage with the fact that you are going to work more than you are paid for. You are buying the moral entitlement to flexibility and the ability to not feel guilty.”

Julia believes law firms are waking up to the cost benefits of having part-time expertise and says lawyers should be asking for flexibility instead of waiting for firms to put it in place. “Once you’ve got to 3-4 years qualified, you start to know a lot about the sector you’re in and are useful to the firm,” she says.

While flexibility means the business secures staff loyalty, she agrees much depends on managers being open-minded.

In-house lawyer Vicky Sandry agrees that forward-thinking bosses are vital. She is Director of Legal – Regulatory & Competition – for Sky and has worked part-time for the last 10 years. She works 3.5 days spread across five days, meaning she is in the office every day but can spend more time with her children. Vicky manages a team of 18 and is one of 7 legal directors, 4 of whom work flexibly.

She says Sky benefits in terms of cost, efficiency and staff retention. “Part-time directors are good value. We’re doing big jobs at a lower cost and are efficient. Sky has retained a huge amount of expertise, not only in transactional areas of law but in management as well.”

She adds that the company has benefited from the lack of flexibility offered by many private practice law firms. “We’re able to access talent that the law firms are losing.”

Despite this, the market is changing. Companies such as Halebury and Obelisk are part of that evolution. “There are some interesting things happening in the sector. It has changed an awful lot over the last 10 years,” says Vicky.

Heather Greig-Smith is a journalist writing about flexible working issues.

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