Solicitor pioneer of four-day working week extols virtues

Hutchinson: If you aren’t going to do it now, when are you?

The boss of a law firm that was one of the first businesses in the world to adopt a four-day working week has set out how it reduced unplanned absences and staff turnover significantly.

Maurece Hutchinson, managing director of JMK Solicitors, a leading personal injury firm in Northern Ireland with around 90 staff, said it also encouraged a move away from the hourly billing culture.

Speaking at this week’s LawCare conference, she explained how the shift came following a productivity exercise in which staff hit targets for efficiency savings and expenses reductions that meant the whole firm relocated to a hotel in Lanzarote for a month in February 2017.

Ms Hutchinson said staff were allowed to work whatever hours they wanted while out there – many did 7-11am and 5-7pm to make the best of the facilities – and the firm ended up having its best-ever month, with clients unaware their lawyers were abroad.

This led management to look more closely still at productivity. “Presenteeism is a huge issue in our profession – I had been one of the worst offenders,” said Ms Hutchinson. “Lanzarote proved to us that it didn’t have to be that way.”

All staff had to keep timesheets for two weeks, which allowed them to find how they could be more productive – the solution was usually a workflow change or automation.

“We wanted to create a framework for efficiency improvement, somewhere where people could put their ideas,” the solicitor went on. Examples were cutting down meetings to 30 minutes and disabling email notifications so people were not interrupted by “constant pinging” on their computers.

After lengthy preparation to show that every team could save an hour a day, JMK moved to a four-day week in January 2020. Staff had their hours reduced from 37.5 a week to 30, but not their pay; those who were already working part-time had their pay boosted.

The idea that it meant a three-day weekend was a “myth”. The office remains open five days a week – staff take different days off and some work five shorter days so they can pick up their children from school.

Ms Hutchinson stressed the importance of staff helping to lead the initiative and management taking their time off, to show they had bought into it too.

It was vital to set key performance indicators (KPIs), she continued. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” Each team has its own KPIs.

There were four areas for JMK: that client service would not drop; maintaining output with 20% fewer hours; making sure there was not more pressure on teams; and having no negative impact on the firm’s reputation.

“There were certain KPIs that we just couldn’t risk failure on – one of those was that we had a 95% client recommendation rate.”

So “no matter who the client ‘belongs’ to, no client call is left unanswered, no client is left unhelped”.

Ms Hutchinson said the most unexpected challenge was cynicism. “You think, who’s going to say ‘I don’t want to work a four-day work’?

“But a few people asked if we did not think they were working hard enough or said they could not possibly do their work in that time… Some people were worried about what they were going to do with the extra time.”

She said there had been far more benefits, though. A masters student brought in to research the impact found a significant reduction in work-related fatigue. Unplanned absence fell by a quarter and staff turnover by half.

Client satisfaction has gone up to 99%, while a staff survey this summer found that 91% agreed that the four-day week has improved their life-work balance and 100% would recommend working at JMK.

People were “lining up” to work for the firm too – last year, for the first time, it was able to fill vacancies without needing to use recruitment consultants.

The firm had also attracted a lot of publicity and there had been environmental benefits, such as fewer journeys to the office.

Ms Hutchinson said: “People just aren’t prepared to do what I did when I joined the profession in the 90s – they’re not prepared to make the life sacrifices that we did and nor should they.”

She urged firms to trial it. “If you aren’t going to do it now, when are you?” Communication was key, so that all staff and clients knew where everyone was.

“You can still be profitable and do this,” Ms Hutchinson added – the firm’s profitability has not changed as a result. “Don’t focus on what could go wrong but on what could go right. If you don’t, your competitors are going to do it and you’ll lose your chance.”

She told Legal Futures that “the culture of the billable hour” was a key issue for law firms making the switch. “It’s about being able to value what you do in methods other than time. A junior lawyer may take longer to answer a question than someone who’s very experienced.”

As a personal injury firm, much of JMK’s work is on fixed costs. This has always made it focused on having “as few touchpoints as you can while still having a very good service”.

She acknowledged that it was easier because of this. For firms that were reliant on hourly billing, they would need to change billing structure. For example, if a particular type of corporate transaction generally cost around £15,000, firms should quote that fee and then “work back from there”.

Another four-day-week pioneer, Trevor Worth of wills and probate firm Portcullis Legals, is speaking at the Legal Futures Innovation Conference on 16 November. You can buy tickets at the early bird price at the moment.

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