Karen Hutchinson and Francesca Berry are both senior associates in the Commercial Litigation team and have been job sharing in this role since October 2016. Both work three days a week.
In this career story Francesca and Karen discuss the practicalities, benefits and client feedback of their shared role:
It was with some trepidation that we initially put forward our job sharing proposal to the firm’s senior management. Whilst there has certainly been an increased focus on flexible and agile working practices within the legal sector in recent years, such arrangements, unfortunately, remain relatively unusual. Certainly, job sharing was untested within Stewarts. Would such an arrangement be perceived as unworkable or unpractical? Might it be viewed as a lack of commitment or interest in our career development?
We knew that the opposite was true. It was our commitment to our careers that had pushed us to make the proposal. Too often we had seen talented lawyers, who had invested huge amounts of time and resource in progressing their careers, feel that they had no choice but to give everything up because of the immense pressures involved in juggling a demanding career with an equally demanding young family. Our hope was to find a workable arrangement that would provide us with an opportunity to spend more time with our children in the short term, whilst supporting our longer term commitment to the firm and our career progression. To us, job sharing seemed the perfect solution.
Fortunately, our application was well received. Stewarts is increasingly committed to diversity, equality and inclusivity and has taken a number of steps to create a workplace in which these principles are embedded. This is reflected in the firm’s approach to flexible and agile working, which recognises that individuals have different needs and requirements.
A number of legitimate questions were raised, specifically regarding how we would manage client’s perceptions and expectations, particularly at critical stages in the litigation process and how we would address the risks of duplication costs, which of course would not be recoverable. These concerns allowed us to think carefully about how the job share would work in practice, in different situations, and to put in place certain guidelines to allow it to run efficiently. Following a successful six month trial period the job share continues to work well.
Good communication is the cornerstone to ensuring that the job share is successful. We work hard to ensure the smooth handover of work through:
- setting aside time every Wednesday, when we are both in the office, to discuss key updates and plan strategy on all active matters; and
- maintaining detailed and up to date handover notes and task lists which can be used by each fee earner to clearly record what work has been done and what is required each week, flagging anything requiring urgent attention.
Handover of work
We recognised from the outset that time directly associated with handing over work, whilst crucial to the effective management of the job share, would not be recoverable. We accepted that any time spent on tasks associated with the hand over of work would be undertaken in addition to our targets with respect to recoverable chargeable work. This was a small price that we were prepared to pay for the many upsides job sharing could offer.
Division of work
We make every effort to manage each matter in the most effective way possible to avoid duplication. The details of how this works in practice varies considerably from case to case. However, typically, to avoid any additional unnecessary duplication we divide work as follows:
- for smaller, less complex matters one of us acts as the ‘lead’ fee earner, responsible for the general conduct of the matter. The lead fee earner makes every effort to anticipate issues and plan ahead to ensure that no time critical matters arise during their days out of the office. The second fee earner then maintains a working knowledge of the matter and steps in if unexpected time critical issues do arise;
- for larger matters we work side by side (as part of a wider team where relevant) with each of us being allocated specific tasks for which we would be primarily responsible with the second fee earner providing support on these tasks as required;
- the team supporting us is also critical to help the job share run smoothly. Therefore, for all matters we try to ensure that paralegal, trainee and junior solicitor support is shared.
Adapting to client needs
We are acutely aware of the fact that we are fortunate to have the opportunity to work part time and still be engaged in work that is both fulfilling and challenging. In return, we remain pragmatic about the fact that there are situations where client needs require adaptability.
Client needs are always paramount. We were conscious from the outset that at critical stages in the litigation process clients may need and expect the consistency of one primary point of contact. The obvious example would be during a trial, where it would be reasonable for a client to expect the same fee earner (or both fee earners) to be present throughout. We take a view on each client’s specific needs on a case by case basis. In most instances, clients form a strong working relationship with both fee earners and issues of consistency have not arisen.
However, in circumstances where there is a client expectation and/or need for one particular fee earner or, more commonly in our experience, both fee earners to be involved in a critical stage in the litigation, we ensure that we are available to meet expectations. In practical terms that might mean either (a) one fee earner simply working additional days as required; (b) one or both fee earners swapping days off over the relevant period; or (c) one fee earner being available to take specific calls or attend meetings on their days off to ensure that the client’s needs are fully met.
The reality is that this is not materially different to the flexibility that is required when working a four or even a five-day week. As we are all aware, fee earners in the legal industry are routinely required to make themselves available outside of ‘normal working hours’ during significant stages in the litigation.
Finally, it is important to recognise the job share as a partnership. We have to respect and trust each other’s judgment but also find ways to effectively and respectfully challenge each other’s views if necessary. It is important to work together and not in competition. It is a joint enterprise and we do not try to take credit for each other’s work or pass blame or distance ourselves if something doesn’t go to plan.
The upsides to the job share are numerous. The obvious and most immediate benefit to us personally is the work life balance it provides. Having the opportunity to enjoy more quality time with our children whilst they are young, at the same time as continuing a rewarding and fulfilling career, is invaluable. However, we genuinely believe that the benefits do not just flow one way. Whilst we recognise that to the extent that there is an overlap this represents a cost to the firm, we believe this is largely offset by the following:
- As two relatively senior fee earners, working together on matters allows us to share our knowledge and ideas and pool our experience, which in turn results in:
- less partner input being required (with corresponding costs benefits); and
- an enhanced overall quality and consistency of the final work output. Two brains really are better than one!
- In addition, the nature of the job share naturally encourages and promotes best working practices as there is an increased need to record meetings, discussions, legal research and advice to ensure that both job share partners are able to easily pick up or refer back to the work the other has undertaken. Sharing a job constantly exposes you to another person’s professional scrutiny. A job share partner will come to know more about you professionally than anyone else. This naturally makes you think even more carefully about the advice you are giving and the decisions you make. It effectively operates as an added level of quality control.
- Working just three days a week means that between us we are better placed and incentivised to put in the longer hours as required. This, in turn, allows us:
- to better meet client needs and expectations;
- greater flexibility to work around colleagues; and
- to more consistently achieve financial performance targets (certainly since the job share was implemented, we have both seen a significant upswing in our pro-rated recordable and chargeable hours).
Being upfront and open with clients about the arrangements is crucial to ensure that they are not left confused by the situation. The feedback we have received has been universally positive. However, reactions do vary – from those who simply do not care who does the work as long as it gets done, to those who comment positively, are interested in the practicalities of the job share and commend the firm for adopting such forward looking working practices.
In a recent discussion with a peer in the legal industry about our working arrangements, they commented that they had never heard of job sharing and thought that if you wanted to work part-time you had to become a professional support lawyer. The entrenched perception that only certain roles can work on a part time basis needs to be challenged. Transitioning to a support or knowledge management role is an excellent route for many lawyers looking to work part-time, however, it is important that, as an industry, we keep exploring the alternatives. For those who enjoy the challenges and hands on nature of fee earning work there are other workable options.
To view Francesca’s profile, please click here.
To view Karen’s profile, please click here.
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