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Why employers in law should offer flexible jobs up front (and the barriers they face)

Today, the Timewise Innovation Unit publishes its annual look at what proportion of UK jobs are advertised with flexible and part-time working options.

The report looks to capture any options that deviate from the nine to five, five-days-a-week pre-pandemic “norm”. To produce it, Timewise scrutinised six million UK job ads for one of 19 terms, including “part-time”, “three-day week”, “four-day week”, “open to job share”, “term-time only roles”, “some or all remote working” and “flexible shifts”.

This year’s figures show that there are four people chasing every part-time job, which contrasts with a record high of 1.3 million full-time roles open earlier this year. Legal jobs offer among the fewest part-time working opportunities in the UK; just 31% of jobs in the legal profession are advertised as flexible, and 6% as part time, despite flexible roles being in high demand.

Legal industry trends

Our research covers both fee-earning and non-fee earning roles, and role-types ranging from paralegal to in-house counsel. Overall, the picture is of minimal growth of part-time opportunities. Despite a societal shift in attitudes towards flexible working during the pandemic, only 31% of legal jobs are currently advertised with any flexibility (up from 23% in 2021). While 90% of people want to work flexibly, and 50% currently do, only 30% of legal jobs are advertised as such.

The 2022 report demonstrates why the demand for part-time jobs is so high: 94% of legal jobs are advertised as full-time. This leaves people who can’t work full-time, including parents, carers and those with mental and physical health issues, locked out of opportunities in the workplace. Only one sector offers fewer part-time jobs: IT (where only 4% of jobs are advertised with part-time options).

More engineers, architects, and even builders, have the opportunity to find a new part-time job than lawyers. 11% of roles in construction are offered on a part-time basis.

The Index also tells a “Tale of Two Flexes”, with roles advertised as part-time more commonly in more junior, lower-paid roles. The flexibility offered to more senior, better remunerated, lawyers is usually around where they work rather than how many hours (hybrid or remote, rather than part time), but still only 19% of legal roles are offered with hybrid working options.

Key reasons why employers do not advertise more legal roles with flexible options

We surveyed 1,000 senior decision makers from a mix of SMEs and large organisations, and followed up with qualitative interviews. Three core themes emerged from the responses.

  • The full-time default model. For some businesses, flexible working is still not on their radar. Many employers simply continue to repeat old ways of constructing job ads, without considering that there might be a better way.
  • A knowledge gap. A lack of understanding creates a barrier to embracing flexible hiring. Some employers struggle to design flexible jobs, to figure out the holiday or associated benefits (this is less likely to be the case in the legal sector), or believe that it just doesn’t fit with their business requirements or infrastructure. Part-time work is seen by some as incompatible with shift-based patterns and management roles. It is also often subconsciously associated with a lack of ambition; a preconception that many lawyers have been battling for decades.
  • A question of trust. There’s an entrenched perception that flexible working must be earned and should only be given to employees who have proved themselves. Timewise is encouraging employers to see the offer of flexible working as part of initially attracting a candidate to a role, like salary. Some employers regard wanting to work flexibly as demonstrating a lack of commitment and worry that they won’t be able to monitor employees’ productivity. Others fear opening the floodgates and creating tensions with existing staff. Much of the working world has moved on since COVID-19, but many organisations still do not offer these options at the point of hire.

Key reasons why employers should offer flexible roles

Offering flexible working can help employers gain an edge in the fight for talent, which is critical with vacancy rates so high. There’s a financial case for investment in flexible working too. Some employers are also recognising that better flexible working practices can help unlock the “S” in their ESG plans. In addition, good flexible hiring standards build better and more diverse workplaces.

Resilience is a factor too. A combination of falling birth rates and post-Brexit restrictions means that, in the longer term, there will continue to be fewer job candidates than are required. Employers who want to attract talented staff cannot afford to keep recruiting in the same way that they always have.

As a social enterprise, we would also say that helping people who can’t work full-time to access paid work is not just a practical solution but a societal imperative. In research backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we established that more openly advertised flexible jobs could help over half a million older workers, parents and people with disabilities to significantly raise their living standards.

Creating a culture where part-time employees are trusted to deliver, flexible workers are valued and championed, and managers are trained to support them, is vital.

Tips: How to articulate flexible working options in job ads

Wording. Look at the design of the role you want to fill and focus on the outcomes you want to achieve. Be honest about the size of the role and consider:

  • Does the post-holder really need to be in the office every day?
  • Could some tasks be delivered from home?
  • Could some tasks be delivered more efficiently by someone else?
  • Would a skilled and experienced person be able to perform the role in fewer than five days a week?
  • Who else could provide support for clients if this person is not working on a given day?

You will soon arrive at a list of options for how the job can be done, which you can include in your advertisement. Few jobs will be completely unsuitable for any form of flexibility.

Avoid using phrases like “open to flexible working” or “have a conversation with us”. Timewise research indicates that nearly half of candidates click away from roles that use this type of language.

There is a growing issue of mistrust in sectors like law that are known for long hours and demanding roles. Candidates are unsure about flexible working that is referred to generically and worry that some employers are paying lip service to something that is essential for them.

Timing. Candidates are unlikely to raise the need for flexible working themselves at interview, even when they really need it, as they feel it damages their chances of getting a role. By stating the available options in a job ad, you level the playing field and confirm that these terms will work for you.

Positioning. Ensure that you include your flexible options at the top of the job ad. In this way you will really stand out. When a candidate cannot work without hybrid options, part-time or flexible hours, they screen online vacancies quickly.

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