Olivia Moore works in Careers & Outreach at the Law Society of Scotland. In this piece she uses the story of one prospective trainee to examine why employers might want to improve their flexible working practices to accommodate the next generation of solicitors.

A short while ago our team received an enquiry from an individual looking for a traineeship. As with many would-be trainees, they had applied to a lot of firms and organisations. They had been successful in receiving an offer from a city-based big firm.

The individual has children, so the rigid nine-to-five posed some challenges around childcare and the school-run. They requested whether flexible hours might be an option, asking first about a 10am-4pm pattern which was rejected as the stated hours were 9am-5pm. Then, they tried a 9.30am-5.30pm request, to accommodate the full number of hours the employer was requesting. This was also rejected.

This candidate chose to vote with their feet and walk away from what would have been a great opportunity. They reasoned that if there was zero flexibility now, what might happen in future when, for example, their child is sick? They weren’t filled with much confidence.

This was a competitive traineeship, which closely matched the individual’s career aspirations and interests. We all know how hard that can be to find. I think this is what makes their decision even more powerful.

What can employers learn from this?

In 2018 Deloitte published a survey about millennials. ‘Positive workplace culture’ and ‘flexibility’ feature as the second and third most powerful factors on a job-seeker’s wish-list, behind only financial rewards or benefits.

Generation ‘Z’ are even more likely to look for flexibility in potential employers than their millennial predecessors according to the survey. Therefore, employers need to think more creatively about how they accommodate different working patterns. This might be flexing hours up and down, home working, or agile working.

The story of this trainee applicant is the survey data brought to life in a working example. It should be used as a cautionary tale for employers, of someone choosing to prioritise their lifestyle over a job that they really wanted.

Our 2018 Profile of the Profession survey told us that 30% of trainees and 69% of those who have been qualified for six to ten years have considered leaving the profession in the past five years. While the path to law is a long one, lawyers are highly adaptable and prized in other sectors due to their transferable skills, technical knowledge and risk management awareness. If the legal profession gets a reputation for being slow-moving in embedding things like flexible working, there’s a danger we won’t continue to attract and keep the brightest and the best. They’ll simply go elsewhere.

Flexible working solutions won't look the same for all businesses and it’s harder for some than others to implement. However, as a manager, think about what a viable option could be, even if it isn’t the status quo and even if no one has done it before. Let’s make sure an unnecessarily rigid approach to flexible working isn’t one of the reasons people think about leaving your company, or the law.

Expectation Vs Reality

Through my involvement with trainee recruitment over the last four years I have observed a lot of employers have strong sales pitches to attract junior staff, often using headlines around culture and values. For example, employers might advertise their inclusivity, their flexible working options, or their empowerment of staff. This is exactly what we want to see and the evidence from Deloitte’s survey suggests that employers need to offer these sorts of benefits in order to attract and retain people.

Those who don’t offer these types of benefits might find their prospective employees favour other organisations. Perhaps a bigger risk though is not delivering on the promises made when attracting candidates. We all know there can be inconsistencies in working practices between internal teams, particularly among managers, and this is where discontentment and resentment can easily grow. The potential result is a lack of succession, with people opting to work elsewhere.

Is the junior workforce asking too much?

I think there can be a danger that requests for more flexibility can be confused with a lack of resilience, or dismissed as a generational issue. On joining the working world, most people get a bit of a shock about what it’s really like. There is a natural bedding-in period when you can struggle to get used to the hours, deadlines, dealing with challenging people and situations and trying to balance work with a private life. People can go through a period of being a bit disenchanted and they adjust their expectations, which generally amounts to simply getting used to the world of work. This isn’t anything unique to the legal profession. It's also not something I find younger lawyers are under any illusions about.

It's also important to remember greater flexibility is inextricably interwoven with gender equality. To enable more women to sustain their careers as well as a family life, flexibility is usually the key. The younger workforce should continue to champion equality and this is one of the practical ways it can be improved.

Historically, plenty of voices have demanded change and it's often been the youth. At one time people wanted a job for life and a final-salary pension. Now some of their top asks are a wellbeing-focused culture and flexibility to get better work-life balance.

Whether aspirations are shared or not, is it useful for employers to close their ears to the demands of the junior workforce? The desire for more flexibility spans across industries and is more reminiscent of a cultural shift rather than a behavioural blip. It's my view that all businesses need to look positively at any ways they can embed more flexibility. Whether that looks like an overhaul or incremental improvement, ultimately I hope it will lead to happier, more sustainable working lives, which I'm sure we can agree is no bad thing.