Changing The Face of Law Firms: How gigs could be the answer to equality in the workplace

Like it or not, the traditional structures of commerce are changing. Very few people have, or want a ‘job for life’ any longer. More and more young people are also travelling the world, preferring to work short term roles in multiple locations. And, more and more companies are realising that they sometimes need workers for a short period, either project-based, or simply for fewer hours per week.

The result is what has become known as the gig economy, or gig commerce: a new model where individuals work on a project, daily, or on an hourly basis as it suits them.

The gig economy is becoming more prevalent in NZ. Traditionally based within the tech world, this model is growing at pace to include freelancers and seasonal workers, and is now extending its reach into nearly all fields of the modern-day workplace.

Of all business sectors, one you might not necessarily think would lend itself to such a structure is the legal profession. Indeed it takes some blue-sky thinking and an insightful recognition of that gap in the market to see that in fact, ‘gigging’ may be exactly what the legal profession needs.

This is because in that company space somewhere between SMEs and large corporations is a myriad of companies that require legal representation, but do not need – and perhaps cannot afford – full-time in-house counsel.

It was exactly this gap that was spotted by experienced lawyer and now successful business woman, Helen Mackay.

Helen had spent many years as in-house counsel for some of the biggest companies in NZ and the UK, including NZ Oil and Gas, Natural Gas Corporation, Novartis UK, Nestle UK, and Electricity Corporation of NZ. Additionally, she was CEO of the In-house Lawyers Association of NZ and co-wrote the 2012 and 2014 Australia and NZ In-house Counsel Leading Practices and Benchmarking report.

There came a time in her career when Helen found that a large number of companies were asking her for help to find talented in-house lawyers for projects or resource gaps. At the same time she knew talented lawyers who were looking for more flexible opportunities to stay in their profession – a profession generally not known for being accommodating to flexible work hours.

It didn’t take Helen long to conclude that there could be a huge, mutually beneficial opportunity for both groups if there was a structure in place that could assist with their needs. So she spent time researching other law firms around the world that worked with the type of flexibility she was looking for. They were generous with their advice and encouraging in their perspective.

Thus Juno Legal was born, a business that is already beginning to change the legal industry by bringing it in to the new gig economy.

I spoke to Helen and asked why she felt that this type of flexibility is important in the legal industry:

“Flexibility is important to enable the evolution of a modern legal profession that values diversity, inclusion and wellbeing. These values can’t just be clichés we talk about, but have to be lived and demonstrated.

The profession changed over time to one where recently you could either work 50+ hours per week or you didn’t have a place. We have incredible lawyers working for us who are juggling their own start-up businesses, governance roles or childcare responsibilities. They have highly desirable skills and expertise that clients want and need, but previously they had limited ways of contributing these skills without compromising their other commitments or their overall wellbeing.

Flexibility is often seen as only benefitting the employee or the worker. But increasingly we see companies operating in agile environments, who need the ability to quickly scale up and down for project and governance work.

Recruitment processes in many companies have become so unwieldy that it takes 2-3 months to recruit an employee for a project that may only be 2-3 months long. On top of this, productivity and wellbeing gains are enormous when people are working optimally to suit their lifestyle.”

This type of work flexibility has been making slow advances in many other industries. The tech world in particular – as mentioned – but also in creative industries where a large percentage of the work is done on a freelance basis. Additionally, many companies now offer their employees the opportunity to work from home. And as technology has made this a viable option, it should be asked why more firms aren’t doing it.

After all, as Helen points out, the structure around current work environments is an artificial one – a relic of an industrial age when physical factory work required being in front of a machine for a set amount of hours.

The remnants of this structure of the working classes being controlled by the upper classes also remains and can be seen in many firms as a simple lack of trust that the work will get done remotely. Rather than treating employees as adults who can be trusted to make good decisions, employers often prefer to see exactly how many hours are being put in.

Juno is really walking the walk here, as Helen explains when she talks about some of the key differences between Juno and most other law firms:

“Professional services firms are generally built around expertise and contingent capacity. This additional capacity allows the firm to ramp up when urgent, demand-driven work comes in and is rewarded by the firm charging premium prices to be able to deliver under pressure and at all hours. Firms seldom say no to work from clients as they want to meet client needs and maximise their revenue.

At Juno, we operate in a more certain and considered way. Our clients understand that our lawyers have valuable skills from working in some of New Zealand’s biggest companies and they are available up to a maximum capacity to act as an extension of the client’s business or team.

Our model means we aim for certainty of demand and look to put a floor and ceiling on the number of hours each lawyer will be available. Increasingly we adopt a collaborative approach and have two or more lawyers working with a client to achieve a full-time equivalent workload or more – but often clients find that someone working optimally at 25-30 hours per week will achieve the same output as a full-time lawyer.

We also rigorously protect the wellbeing of our lawyers by working with them to understand what they want their ideal working week, month and year to look like, and help them achieve the optimal balance of work and other commitments. In addition, we often turn work down or refer it within our network as we don’t want to overload our team and we only want to work with clients who value what we offer.”

No doubt the model Juno has established can be implemented into many more industries. For example, long established New Zealand financial planning company Perpetual Guardian recently trialled reducing all their staff to a four day week, a move that showed employee flexibility can indeed pay dividends. Far from a drop in productivity, Perpetual Guardian found a slight increase in work output, along with a massive increase in staff engagement and satisfaction during their eight-week experiment. They are now looking into making the change a permanent one.

In a time of skills shortages, thriving organisations are starting to think very differently about how to access the skills they need. The other side of that coin is that highly skilled people are realising they have more power to determine where and when they work and for whom.

Of course any discussion about the legal profession in particular, at the moment, has to address the issues surrounding sexual harassment and bullying that was brought to light earlier this year. Helen is fairly pragmatic about why these problems seem to exist in the legal profession.

“I think any demanding environment with high stress and high expectations has the potential to bring out the worst in human beings. Law can be about conflict and taking sides, so the people who have traditionally done well in the profession are often combative by nature. That behaviour can spill over into the way they treat their colleagues and peers.

It’s also a hierarchical profession, and one that is dominated by men at senior levels. People often act in ways they think will be accepted by the group they are part of, so I think the profession has tolerated bad behaviour for too long.”

So what can be done to correct the issue?

“It has taken some very brave women -– and men – to speak out and shine a light on the problems we all face. The next step is to take a good look at the legal profession and see whether there are structural and regulatory changes that need to happen to make it safer for everyone.

And of course, everyone in the profession needs to commit to zero tolerance for bad behaviour, no matter how senior the lawyer involved may be.”

It is often in times of revelations of unacceptable behaviour that we all take a look back at the path of our careers. At indiscretions we may have seen or even been a part of. This is by no means confined to the legal profession.

And in the same way that we now cringe at some of the movies we loved in our youth (misogyny, casual racism, fat shaming, the list goes on), and the slightly creepy lyrics of songs (have you ever really listened to the Rod Stewart classic ‘Tonight’s the Night’?) we can also look back at the state of casual workplace sexism in which many of us operated without giving it a second thought. Did we all tolerate behaviour then that we wouldn’t today? Probably.

Some industries though, including the legal profession are structured in such a way that wholesale change is made more difficult, particularly in terms of flexiblilty. When it comes to any licensed profession, things are not that simple. Helen explains why this might be so:

“I think most firms want to hold on to their bright and capable talent and don’t understand why they are failing to do so. The structure of professional services firms means you are essentially competing against your colleagues and peers to win work, to meet budgets and to advance to senior levels, and this simply does not appeal to many of the men and women I know who want to work more collaboratively.

Opportunities for flexibility are still rare in private practice and I often see and hear of female lawyers being paid to work part-time hours while delivering a full-time role.

Lawyers can’t work as contractors in New Zealand unless they have qualified to open their own law firms, and you can’t qualify unless you have worked full time for three of the past five years. This is a significant barrier to flexibility in our legal profession that disadvantages lawyers working part-time.

Law firms are also interesting governance structures as they are owned and led only by the partners around the table and therefore don’t have independent mechanisms for strategy, leadership and complaints like a publicly listed company would.

Internationally, other business structures have been introduced where firms can have outside owners. This opens them up to more disciplined corporate governance and enables them to take a longer term view rather than just considering the interests of the current lawyer owners. I think these structural changes would go a long way to improving law firm culture.”

Unfortunately, as with any large corporate structure, change is slow to happen. Despite the best of intentions, making change in such an environment can be like turning the Titanic, it just can’t happen fast enough to save them all.

But Juno is making a strong start. It is still small enough to be agile, and well structured enough to meet each new demand – or complication – as it arises. If people in every industry can demonstrate some of the entrepreneurial and innovative thinking that Helen has applied to the legal profession, future workplaces could operate very differently. To work in a business where every employee is equally valued for their skill-set rather than their gender or the hours they put in, isn’t that the dream?

I ask Helen where she sees Juno going in the future – as it seems she may be more attuned to that future than most of us…

“I want Juno to continue to attract the best in-house lawyers in the country while prioritising our lawyers’ wellbeing above all else. It is important that we adapt and anticipate how the business environment will change over this period as it moving so rapidly now.

I suspect the legal profession will look very different in 10 years than it does now, so rather than holding a fixed view of what services we will offer, I’d like us to continue to work with our clients to deliver what they want and need using the collective skills of our team.”

It is reassuring to know that there are people such as Helen who are willing to look at making such wholesale change to their profession. Juno opens up opportunities for lawyers who, for example, may not have been able to go back to working after having a baby – 50-60 hour weeks in the corporate world generally does not fit well around family life. How many talented lawyers have been lost to the profession simply because they wanted a family? It’s a loss that can’t be measured, and I suspect it’s higher than we think.

There is even now a vast pool of talented, experienced workers that have walked away from their profession and prioritised their family, simply for lack of a viable alternative. And for the lack of companies that are willing to break with convention in order to retain valuable staff members.

But if changes such as this can be achieved within one of the most traditional, conventional, and conservative professions in the world, imagine what could be achieved elsewhere. Bring on the gigs.