We know the world-over is looking at flexible-working models, with Covid-19 offering evidence that it can be done.
Some are reluctant to change seeing as it's harder to preside over your worker-bees if they're not confined to an office.
Issues around trust, reciprocity, autonomy, purpose and power imbalance spring to mind, but I'm forever barking on about the underdog - and several small NZ law firms have shown it can be done (keep reading).
A 2018 Stanford University study that compared working in and out of an office, those working from home had a 50 percent decrease in attrition, took shorter breaks, had fewer sick days and took less time off.
They were also found to be working full shifts (and more), as opposed to a control group, who would be late to the office or leave early multiple times a week. The company in question saved almost US$2000 per employee on rent.
There's a business case for wellbeing. According to Southern Cross Health Society figures, in 2014 6.7 million working days were lost to absence, which was the equivalent of $1.4 billion across the economy. Employees had nearly three times as many presentee (the act of being at work, but not working) days as absentee days, and the average cost to employers for absentee and presentee days was estimated to be over $1500 per year, per employee.
Tompkins Wake is a firm that has prioritised flexible working - with nearly 30 percent of people working flexibly even before Alert Level 4.
They have got partners that work part-time too, believe it or not. Without wanting to go into the trials and tribulations of PQE, and the hoops people need to jump through to become a sole practitioner, let's look at some people and firms that are doing things differently.
At Juno Legal employees come first, clients come second, Helen Mackay told me. "Lawyers tend to be so diligent and hard-working, we decided it's the firm's obligation to look after them, and let them look after their clients."
The staff of 23 (21 lawyers, and two legal professionals - as an aside, Mackay takes issue with the term 'support staff', and rightly so in my view seeing as language is important and 'support' deems said people as less valuable) work between eight and forty hours a week.
"It's funny, the lockdown showed us that people are far more productive and balanced when they follow their own natural structure. Some may be more productive in the mornings, or want to exercise at 11am. Sure, full collaborative work might be better suited in person, but it's about what's going to work best for that lawyer or other team member."
It's not a novel model internationally, but why is there such resistance, where the fallacy of having to be committed to one job and employer still lingers in the Antipodes? According to the latest snapshot of the profession, only 67 practitioners make up this new breed of lawyers - coined NewLaw in 2013 by an Australian lawyer forecasting what the industry would be like in five years.
Of course I'm inclined to think it's about power, economic gain, and those who have it - the male, pale, and stale brigade. But Mackay says it's dangerous to see it as a gender issue. "I get annoyed when people say, 'you run a lady law firm, don't you'. No. 30% of our lawyers are male and it's about everyone having equal access to great work and a great life."
Sure, as everyone works on their own terms, pro bono work is not an easy option, but what they lack in time, they pay in cash by donating one percent of their profits to a charity of each lawyer's choice.
One issue is that 'gig economy work' or flexibility is only meaningfully available to people who are at a senior level, and can exist independently from clients and partners, Aotearoa Legal Workers' Union president Morgan Evans told me.
The design for bright young things is flawed as there's no way to gain the skills you need to work as a contractor without first being churned through the 'factory'. It means: "You're measured by your utility to the business, rather than the business being measured by its utility to you".
"Juniors in firms have to 'prove themselves' and build the trust of their employer. To do that, they are often expected to be at their desks or on call at all times, and their lifestyle is at the mercy of the partner who employs them."
There's an obligation to be deserving or to have earned their independence. Evans put it perfectly: "you need to pay for your freedom".
Bucking this trend is Te Aro Law. Directors Robyn Zwaan and Charlotte Shade have chosen a mixed model in a bid to meaningfully recognise that staff have lives outside of work.
The team of six are only expected to work 30 hours a week, and there's a requirement to be in the office for 10 of those hours.
"We maintain these core office hours so that we preserve a feeling of teamwork as well as using that time to bounce ideas off each other, but we wanted to balance that with people's needs outside of work," the directors say.
New lawyers are provided with a variety of different work experience and they're given the agency to pursue their own interests.
"We aim for transparency and collaboration in our management of the firm - we all know what each other earns, our senior lawyers are paid 60 percent of what they bring into the firm and our junior lawyers are on a defined path to earning the same."
Zwaan and Shade are young, and having worked in different types of firms they came to recognise what works well and what doesn't work well for them in the traditional law firm structure.
"We wanted to make sure we did what we could to avoid burnout of staff as we had seen occurring throughout the legal profession; we wanted to serve the most vulnerable in the community rather than setting rates that are out of reach for your average New Zealander; and we wanted to provide staff with interesting and meaningful legal work in an environment that is collaborative and largely non-hierarchical and with a fair and transparent pay structure."
If you've got any tips, legal tidbits, or appointments that might be of interest, please email sasha.borissenko@ gmail.com