Linklaters' German staff set their own hours

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In our new series of international case studies we learn from HR initiatives at organisations around the globe

The organisation

Founded in 1838, and with 30 offices in 20 different countries, Linklaters is one of the revered ‘magic circle’ law firms (the loose term for the five London-headquartered firms with either the largest revenue, most international work, or that most consistently outperform the market in terms of profit and performance). The business – which has total revenues exceeding £1.3 billion – currently employs 5,270 staff, of which 2,300 are qualified lawyers and 490 partners. Intellectual property, real estate, corporate M&As, dispute, pensions and crisis management, resolution, competition, information management, and data protection are just some of the areas it advises in. It is a frequent innovator in terms of employment and HR policy, including running successful LGBTQ, BAME, family and carers networks – activities that now see it ranked in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers 2018 league table and The Times’ Top 50 Employers for Women in 2018 list. More than a third of its senior managers are women and around 40% of employees have more than five years’ service. It has 10 offices in Europe, including Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the UK.

The challenge

According to Thomas Schmidt, head of human resources at Linklaters’ Frankfurt office, the pressure staff said they felt to “always be available” to clients meant they simply weren’t switching off – a factor affecting their family life and responsibilities. “There was a feeling lawyers didn’t have much control,” he recalls. “Pressure to be responsive 24/7 meant people were starting to sense they wanted to have their life back. We didn’t want this to manifest itself in skilled people leaving so we developed YourLink – the ability for staff to agree when they do their hours, with a promise from us that there’ll be no interruptions to their life outside those hours.”

The strategy

Under the new policy – which was introduced on 1 May 2017 – all full-time staff are able to decide if and when they want to work statutory hours (set at no more than 40 per week). “It could mean that someone chooses a 10-hour day one day, and a three-hour one the next,” says Schmidt. “The key point is that while staff still have to work a set number of hours a week there is total flexibility about when they do it.

“As soon as people have done their block of hours for that day there is no requirement that they must be available, and colleagues are actively told not to contact them,” he adds. “People will only come forward to YourLink if they definitely know they won’t be contacted, whatever might be happening after they’ve worked their agreed hours.”

To ensure this doesn’t happen staff are told they must “take up the slack” – and roll their sleeves up themselves if a matter needs attending to after the designated lawyer for a case has moved onto their non-work time.

The result

Although the policy seems like it might feel unfair to those still at the office, who might then have to suddenly pick up someone else’s work, Schmidt says the scheme does work. “Because it’s available to everyone, regardless of a person’s tenure or status or even whether they have care responsibilities, it’s a benefit they too can enjoy if they want to. If they don’t like it they can opt to do the same thing,” he says. Currently 12 lawyers have decided to formally enroll on this working arrangement (out of around 150 associates) – a number Schmidt says is good considering the firm already has flexible working and part-time options.

Of the first nine, five were new hires, demonstrating that the scheme helps attract new talent too. That said, the retention element is also key. Schmidt says: “We’ve presented the policy to existing staff as us saying ‘we know we have extremely talented people and we want to keep you’.” He adds: “We know that the policy has already helped at least one lawyer stay with us. She said she was thinking of moving to an in-house role to combat the pressure she was feeling.”

What Schmidt does admit, however, is that those with aspirations to become a partner may have to accept that being available 24/7 is “still what’s needed” to make this particular jump. Also, because YourLink associates work fewer hours they have to accept a pay cut. First-year associates are paid €80,000 (£71,500), compared to €120,000 (£107,000) for those on Linklaters’ standard package. Pay increases thereafter are also flatter than those on standard hours, while bonuses are also reduced.

In addition, what’s yet to surface is just how scalable the initiative is. Schmidt says that currently the number in the scheme is manageable. “Whether we’d still have the same ‘no contact’ rules if we started getting to 40 or 60 people working in this way is another question,” he says. “At the end of the day we still have to serve our clients.”

Importing back home

According to Thomas Schmidt, head of human resources at Linklaters’ Frankfurt office, there is nothing uniquely ‘German’ about the policy – suggesting it could be a model UK organisations could copy. However, despite YourLink being piloted in Germany there are currently no plans to extend the scheme into Linklaters’ offices in the UK.

Although unusual in the legal profession, the ability for staff to choose their own hours is not without recent UK precedent. In August 2018 accountancy firm PwC introduced its Flexible Talent Network, which enables staff to pick what hours they want to work. It did so after its own research found 46% of 2,000 people questioned prioritised flexible working hours and a good work/life balance when choosing a job. 2,000 staff registered
for it in the first two weeks after launch.

With all firms desperate to attract skilled staff, law firms in particular might want to take note of what Linklaters has done. In the Junior Lawyers Division’s 2018 Resilience and wellbeing survey report 54% of young lawyers ‘regularly’ or ‘occasionally’ felt unable to cope because of stress in the month before the survey. Some 67% blamed their ‘high workload’. The survey also found 83% of those questioned thought their firm could do more to support them at work.

Separate research by virtual law firm Keystone Law also revealed that 67% of lawyers feel their profession is more stressful than other roles.

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