The COVID-19 pandemic may be over, but months of lockdown continue to impact the way we work. While remote and hybrid working arrangements have become the norm, the UK workforce heralds the benefits: less money spent on travel–including food and drinks during the commute– and more time at home with friends and family. As a result, there exists a growing interest in alternative work arrangements that promote an improved work-life balance yet simultaneously increase employee productivity, the most recent of which being a move to a four-day work week. Although the legal sector–notorious for intense, stressful work schedules–seems incompatible with this arrangement, employees and employers are nonetheless considering the shift.
In the UK
4 Day Week Global first launched the conversation in the UK in collaboration with Cambridge and Oxford Universities. Between June and December 2022, organisations across the UK–including non-profit organisations and private firms in recruitment, software, and manufacturing–switched to four-day work weeks without reducing pay for their employees. This included branches of legal charity Citizens Advice, which offers free legal advice from trained volunteers; the charity did return to five-day weeks following the trial. Chief Executive Alison Dunn clarified that although there were clear benefits to the shorter work week, such as reduced burnout, there were still areas of the business where it was uncertain how they would operate. The charity has high targets to reach a large number of clients, and has had more frequent referrals with the cost of living crisis, meaning that the service does not have the funding or resources to hire more staff to aid those already struggling, let alone to supplement time lost by cutting down hours. Although reports do suggest that these costs are eventually offset by a reduction in the cost of recruiting, training, and supporting burnt out employees, it may be a long way before that comes to fruition.
In contrast, Leeds-based Consilia Legal jumped on board the four-day train in 2022, offering their senior solicitors another day off mid-week dependent on someone being available in the department to handle client enquiries. Looking to reduce working hours, Laura Clapton and her cofounder prompted the move to four days, and conducting this transition during the pandemic made the process even easier as employees were already based at home. One of the benefits they saw was an increase in efficiency, as solicitors know they have less time to work and are more inclined to improve productivity and cut out unnecessary meetings and appointments. Likewise, junior lawyers are motivated to remain at the firm for this benefit once they qualify, reducing the likelihood that they will seek out positions at other firms.
JMK Solicitors in Northern Ireland have taken this a step further and implemented a four-day week for all employees regardless of position with no reduction in pay. Since January 2020, all JMK staff have had their work hours reduced from 37.5 hours to 30 hours. HR and Operations Manager Michelle Murphy attributes the firm’s resilience to disruption caused by COVID to this change; employees were prepared to adapt as they had already rescheduled their working schedule to adapt to a shorter week. The extra day also helped workers destress and renew their energy without the stress of a decreased salary.
Nevertheless, it is unclear if the four-day week would succeed in a larger-scale legal environment, or in Chambers where court dates and client meetings are squeezed into schedules frequently. Similar to Citizens Advice, many firms need a public-facing worker who can be called upon at any time during the regular work week.
European countries are even more receptive to reducing the work week to four days. Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland conducted the world’s largest pilot of a 35 to 36-hour without any calls for a commensurate cut in pay. Productivity increased, the number of absentees decreased, and employees reported an improvement in mental wellbeing. Similar trials have been undertaken in Finland, and although they have not stuck, they have mirrored the findings of improved work-life balance including better mental health and increased productivity.
The clearest proponent of the four-day work week is Belgium, who has enacted in law the right for employees to choose to work only four days with no reduction in pay. This does not mean they will be working less, but rather will condense their working hours into fewer days. The government hopes to invigorate their population to enter the workforce, but sectors with the largest gaps in the labour market, such as the medical field who cannot offer a four-day work week, are unable to benefit from this change.
Movement to acknowledge a renewed need for work-life balance is not limited to Europe. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a recalibration of people’s priorities, and employers are having to adapt or risk losing their workforce to a more accommodating company. Examples include Microsoft trialling a three-day weekend in Japan, a country infamous for their debilitating work culture. As a result, productivity was boosted by 40% and work was more efficient, with no cut in pay.
The US. has also shown interest in cutting down working hours; a survey by cloud-software vendor Qualtrics found that an incredible 92% of US workers are in favour of the shortened workweek, even if it means working longer hours. Despite this, there is still the problem of applying such a change to high-stakes careers. Simpson Thacher has reiterated the need for employees to adhere to their three-day office rule or risk losing their bonus, as have Ropes & Gray and Sidley Austin and Davis Polk. Proponents for returning to the office site the value that in-person contact has for developing attorneys, as well as the fact that for many junior lawyers, attendance is tied to job security.
So, what will the legal field do? In the UK, it seems unlikely that firms and chambers will reduce their working hours in the near future. Increased demand of legal resources after the stagnation of the pandemic, as well as increasing burnout, means cutting hours is not a feasible option.. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, programs director of Four Day Week Global, also credits the unique culture of the legal sector for its incompatibility with reduced hours–billable rates and competitive markets mean that taking time off is not as acceptable as in other fields.
Abroad, more companies seem receptive of the move following existing changes as a consequence of the pandemic, but the US law firms’ decisions to increase time in the office emphasises one key aspect of legal work: the invaluable nature of face-to-face conversations. A reduction in time spent in the office only restricts those critical conversations.