The Dark Side of Flexible Work Hours

In a discussion that’s starting to look like the quest for the holy grail, the chants of “we want flexible work arrangements!” are increasing their intensity and consistency. But here’s the rub – flexible work hours and working from home as a lawyer are really hard to manage.

As I write this, I’m employed as a lawyer on a casual basis.

With that, I also do a lot of my work from home – even better, right?

Yep – that’s right, I have managed to acquire that thing to which so many lawyers aspire – flexible work arrangements.

But like many things, I think it’s important to know what you’re actually chasing, and how it’s going to impact your life, your work methods, and your career. Because while working from home on a casual basis is awesome on many levels, it comes with some significant challenges and consequences that you’re going to need to deal with.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the hurdles you’re going to face along the way.

Losing Focus

The huge benefit to having a (relatively) set duration in the office is this: you can focus more easily.

Sure, you might check a text message every now and again but by and large you’re focused on your work for the vast majority of the day.

Then you go home, and it switches around the other way – you’re focused on being home, but of course check your emails sometimes because you’re a hard core professional who can’t switch off.

When you’re at home (in my case with three kids) the very clear definition between work and not-work changes significantly. Sure – you might plan to get up at 6 and do 2 hours of dedicated work before getting on to other things, but then you sleep in, and you take longer over your coffee than you thought, and your kids get up earlier than expected, and your spouse wakes up not feeling well.

And all of a sudden, your two hours of planned focus time are gone, and you spend the rest of your day trying to get them back in 5 minute blocks.

It’s unfocused, inefficient, and unproductive.

Mastering the ability to focus on your work despite the potential for distraction is a huge component in making any flexible work arrangements work as a lawyer. It might mean making your own space, quarantining yourself, getting apps which prevent social media updates – whatever your Achilles heel is that takes your attention away from work will be multiplied by 100 when you don’t have the office environment to keep you on track.

Harder Access

No matter how good the technology is, working in isolation generally still removes you from accessing some resources.

Perhaps it’s the firm precedents – especially if those precedents have a tendency to be hidden in your partner’s office and based on his or her memory of the matters that took place 6 years ago.

Perhaps it’s the research library.

Perhaps it’s the file documents that haven’t yet been scanned.

Perhaps it’s because you simply aren’t very good at using computers and your reliance on a paper system is hard to shift away from.

After all, the systems are only as good as the information that goes in, and the people that use them.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Have you ever had to chase up your supervisor about something you submitted for review? Yeah – me too.

What did you find to be the most effective method? Was it:

  • emailing your supervising partner over and over;
  • “buzzing” them on the phone;
  • leaving post-it notes on their desk; or
  • literally walking up to them and sitting in their office until they pay attention to you?

Not being able to do the last one, or do it as often, means that both you and your partner need to have some agreed methods of prioritization. Because in a world of “too busy” there is every chance that your work is going to go to the bottom of the list.

Not because your partner is a jerk.

But because you’re out of sight, and out of mind – and so are your files.

Utilising the Brains Trust

Beyond mentoring, one of the most useful aspects of working in a law firm with a wide range of other lawyers is the ability to pick their brain about topics.

Perhaps its an area of specialisation that you don’t know too well.

Perhaps you need to bounce an idea off someone.

Perhaps you need to “debrief” after something went wrong.

Perhaps you just want someone to review a letter you’ve written to make sure it’s on the right track.

Don’t underestimate the power of spending time with like minded people who understand intuitively what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it.

There is a lot of wisdom available inside a law firm, and if you aren’t in the office that much then your ability to access it is going to be restricted.

Less Experience

It’s pretty simple – one lawyer works 60 hours a week, every week, for a year. After some holidays they have devoted more than 2800 hours to their practice.

You work 10 hours a week, every week, for  year. After some time off occasionally, you have devoted around 480 hours to your practice.

They have nearly 6 times more experience than you have after a year.

6 times more client contact.

6 times more time spent drafting.

6 times more ability to develop internal relationships with their colleagues.

6 times longer to go to Court, write contracts, negotiate outcomes, persuade parties, brief barristers, draft submissions, and build their network.

Don’t underestimate the impact that’s going to have on your career over the long term. It will impact your job hunting efforts, your practical skills, your legal knowledge, and your marketing efforts.

Always On

You need to be accessible, but if you're constantly on then you're going to run out of batteries.Click To Tweet

Depending on the nature of your arrangement, there’s a chance that you’re going to feel “always on”.

The phone might ring, an email come in, or a message arrive at any minute.

Which means you never feel like you’re disconnected.

Although you might think that having no defined office hours leaves you free to quarantine when you’re working to your terms, the fact is that most diligent lawyers aren’t going to do that.

Instead of freeing yourself from office hours, you’ve just extended your “potential” hours to 24 per day.

Managing your time effectively is going to be a critical component to making any flexible arrangement work. You need to be accessible, of course, but if you’re constantly on then you’re going to run out of batteries.

So It’s All Awful Then?

No it’s not.

In fact, there are many totally brilliant aspects to flexible work arrangements. That’s just not what this article was about.

This article was to highlight to you that just because you want something, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best thing for you.

Let me know in the comments: what are your experiences with flexible work? Have they been a big success story, or an unmitigated disaster?

Happy Lawyering!

  • Many a people have problems dealing with time and deadlines, being on all the time is a great issue for me even though I am not a lawyer yet, but solving issues online, helping assignments, editing for friends and many other routine schedules really needs to be addressed.

    I really wonder how shattered the life of lawyer will be working for that millions of seconds around the clock in a year.

    Time management is the key and self discipline. I have two times tried reading a book with my phone beside me with the intention of not paying any attention to a ring or buzz or beep. I succeeded only once, the second time was too important to be ignored.
    Irony of life.

    Thanks Chris.. Keep lawyering

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