Much has been made of a move in-house offering a better work-life balance than private practice. But as expectations and responsibilities rise for GCs, can in-house keep delivering on flexible working?

In June 2014, the government extended flexible working rights to more than 20 million employees across the UK in a policy shift that recognised the traditional nine-to-five routine no longer dominates British workplaces. But if such attitudes are relatively new to much of the economy, lawyers in in-house roles – traditionally a more progressive environment than private practice – have long put a premium on agile working.

Flexible working, defined as any pattern other than going into an office for five full days a week, can encompass part-time hours, job shares, nine-day fortnights or working from home. According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), as of August 2015, eight million people work part-time in the UK out of just over 31 million in the UK workforce, while four million are estimated to primarily work from home. The biggest driver for flexible working requests remain parental responsibilities, but such arrangements have become more accepted for a wider range of reasons, including carer responsibilities, chronic illness, charity work or even the desire to pursue outside interests.

For the in-house profession, its support for progressive working has long been built on enlightened self interest; flexible working is well established as one of the most effective means of attracting quality lawyers from private practice, compensating for the higher salaries at leading law firms. Despite the profession’s conservatism, increasing demand for hard-to-find specialist skillsets in commercial law means employers have been prepared to be adaptable to get the right candidate.

Simon Chadwick, CEO of Espero Consulting, believes support for flexible working has only grown over the last three-to-five years. ‘Large FTSE or equivalent clients often can’t compete with basic salaries, so they need to think of other ways to attract these individuals. One of the reasons people look to go in-house is to gain some control over their working pattern. Work-life balance is a huge sell.’

Yet despite corporates and GCs talking up the benefits of flexible working, its availability and successful implementation vary hugely in practice. It depends on what sort of business you support, and often what business line you support. If you are required to support Asia-Pacific, you will need to be there early in the morning.

Add these factors to the growing remit and responsibilities of the role and the logistical difficulty of offering flexible working to everyone in an in-house role is considerable.

It is an interesting tension for the in-house profession. Rising demands and expectations for employed lawyers mean lengthening work hours in many cases, pushing against the flexibility that has been a cornerstone of the modern in-house profession. As GCs become more established as members of the c-suite, is there a threat to the more progressive attitude of in-house towards workable hours?

“In-house is not the solution it used to be for people who wanted a quieter life,’ concedes one GC. ‘When you are operating at a FTSE 100 level in a company like ours – I spent half my weekend working because I had to read papers for board meetings this week. If you are working in-house at the highest level of an organisation, in a highly regulated financial services environment, in-house is not the easy solution in terms of more workable hours.’

Being realistic

Flexible working is rarely advertised in initial job descriptions, and is typically offered on an individual basis for those who have been at a company for a while and have already proved themselves. It is very rare that a company would offer flexible working contractually – this is more of a cultural sell rather than something you will have in writing. Companies are very open to flexible working, but probably not from day one. What they do expect people to do is establish themselves in the first three-to-six months and then essentially join the company culture of allowing people to work from different locations, including from home, and then maybe leaving early or starting late.

However, getting the right person for the role is also important and challenging for senior and specialist roles. If being close to the business is core to the in-house proposition, the other side of that coin is progressive working. Even at interviews, exceptions are made for key roles or for the most impressive candidates. Companies tend to take a very meritocratic view in that they want the best person for the role and, if there are accommodations that they have to make to enable them to get the best people, that’s exactly what they do.

Clearly there is truth in that, but the real picture is nuanced. Often it depends as much on the culture of an individual company as the industry sector, and wide disparities between individual companies remain.

If you are considering a move in-house, it is recommended you investigate these factors as part of your due diligence before accepting any role. As expectations and responsibilities rise for GCs, it may be that your prospective new role does not offer the work-life balance you were expecting.

If you are considering a move in-house, or would like to discuss the flexible working options available to you, contact James at Espero Consulting on 0845 241 2127 or by email at james.yates@esperoconsulting.com.