If you’re familiar at all with legal practice, you know that billable hours are the great driver of professional life. Lawyers measure their billable time in increments as short as six minutes, and racking up hours is how you stand out from your peers, move up the ladder, and make partner. In the professional service firms I’ve studied, almost all of them move from time-based billing to project-based, and then implement a shorter workweek’ nobody wants to fight against time-consciousness within the company, or explain to clients why your hourly rates just went up dramatically.
But the pandemic is changing everything, including how some law firms work. I recently found out about two big firms in Denmark that have been experimenting with shorter workweeks.
The first, Kromann Reumert, is a full-service firm working mainly with Danish-based international clients. They have thirty practice areas, ranging from real estate to transactions, M&A, and insolvency, operating out of three offices: a central office in Copenhagen with more than 500 staff, a 130-person office in Aarhus, and a small outpost in London.
In Denmark, as in the US, your career at a firm often starts as a summer intern; if you work out, you get hired as an associate for 3 years, at which point your take bar exam and become an attorney. After another 3-4 years you can be promoted to senior attorney; a few people are promoted to associate partner or equity partner 3-4 years after that. It’s not an explicitly “up or out” culture, but there are natural points where people move on or change careers, and as with legal practice in other countries, plenty of women decide to reduce their hours or leave when they become parents.
In 2018, the firm implemented its “Expect Balance” program, which expanded opportunities to work flexibly or reduce workloads. It was driven in part by a desire to reduce attrition among women, but from the start the program was available to everyone, which helped them avoid flexibility stigma issues. They HR team heard about IIH Nordic and its 4-day week in 2019, and when Danish companies started going remote in response to the pandemic, that opened up the opportunity to experiment with some new practices. In October, they set a new policy* allowing everyone to work from home two days a week.
They also implemented a policy to allow people to work 4-day weeks. This isn’t about reducing working hours, and isn’t a coordinated, company-wide redesign of the schedule. Rather, it’s meant to let people take a day off after a big deadline, or to adjust their hours to deal with non-work things. (Interestingly, HIR director Birgitte Bendtsen says, when they were talking about a 4-day week in the firm, most of the lawyers wanted more flexibility rather than a shorter workweek.) So while it’s less of a systemic change, it is a permanent policy.
The second firm is Molt Wengel, a firm that specializes in construction and real estate law. Because of its focus, for years it’s had a substantial number of people working off-site: at any give time about 40% of employees are at satellite offices or embedded with clients. They’ve also been trying to “change the mindset from being legal case workers to being strategic advisers who think holistically,” director Anne Katrine Schjønning says.
Part of this move is shifting “the perception of value” away from “how many hours the service takes to creating value for the customer.” And that shift, in turn, opens up an opportunity to experiment with working time.
For one thing, it enables it shift within the company from a focus on hours, to a focus on maximizing the productivity of your time. “There’s no point working too much. In the tenth or eleventh hour of work, we do not create value. We need to create power all the time we’re at work,” Schjønning says. “It’s important for us to work efficiently instead of working too much.”
As a result, they’ve gotten rid of morning meetings, giving people more free time to focus on serious work. They’ve also reset the default length of meetings, cutting them from 45 minutes to 20 minutes. (They also changed this in Outlook, which is important because those programmatic defaults play a big role in shaping our everyday behavior.) They use pomodoro, working hard for 25-minute sprints then taking a break. Finally, they’ve implemented a 4.5-day week, closing on Friday at lunchtime. (If all this sounds familiar, it’s what IIH Nordic does.)
It’s too early to measure the effect of these programs on retention or work-life balance, but clients are already responding. At Kromann Reumert, they worried that it would be tough to sell this program, but so far, Bendtsen says, “The clients are doing the work for us”– they’re supportive, and even are talking about trialing it themselves.
So even in as supremely ambitious and time-conscious a profession as law, it’s possible to implement programs to control working hours, offer greater flexibility, and help people focus and use their time better.
*As always, I’m reading Danish-language articles through Google Translate. I can recognize a few words of Danish, but not nearly enough to actually read it.