The outfits bucking the ‘all work no play’ trend
There’s a lot of noise around achieving a healthy work/life balance and no end of advice for employers and staff alike: HR policies, ‘wellbeing’ weeks, awareness days, inspirational talks, and so on. Given all the helpful material out there, one wonders why we are not all in some work/life nirvana.
The fact is that awareness is one thing, changing the culture and mindset is quite another. But as our most recent Legal Cheek survey of over 2,000 trainees and junior associates at the leading law firms in London and the UK, shows, there are firms out there who are trying hard. Sometimes this might come at the expense of a fat pay packet but not always.
A good work/life balance is not only about avoiding long hours (though of course, 60% of the firms that have done well in our survey for work/life balance are also in the top ten for the best average arrive and leave times): it’s also about having an open mind, exploring flexible working, avoiding ‘presenteeism’ and not emailing staff until the late hours and expecting a response. Out of a possible top score of ten; one equates to: “I’ve sub-let my flat as I haven’t been there for months,” and ten is: “I’ve never had to cancel a dinner reservation”.
We can finally reveal the ten best law firms for work/life balance as scored in our survey. In alphabetical order, they are…
This South West stalwart with over 500 staff in six sites (including London), scored a shiny A* for work/life balance. On the brink of a merger with Reading firm, Boyes Turner, Ashfords has ambition but not at the cost of your life. One insider enthused: “I love the work/life balance at Ashfords. The latest I have ever stayed is 7pm. If there is no urgent work to do, the partners encourage you to leave on time.” And it sounds like that supportive stance isn’t just empty words. Junior lawyers describe a “better than average” balance towards “life”.
Striking that balance does depend on the department, our spies tell us: “In property, it was pretty good with average working hours. In corporate/commercial your personal life can take a serious hit at times.” Everything is relative, of course, comments one rookie: “For law (!) I think the firm offers a pretty decent balance. Stay till 7pm when you are busy, leave at 6 when you are not. Occasionally there are longer days but these are few and far between and usually involve travelling.”
Apparently, trainees at BLM can expect to leave the office at an astonishing 5.45pm. That is almost like an average school day of yore or reminiscent of being a student after a day with a few lectures. Only in Denmark, the mecca for work/life balance advocates where offices are notorious for being completely empty by 5.30pm, would you see such times (giving you plenty of opportunity to watch all those Nordic-noir thrillers on Netflix, one presumes).
No wonder then that this insurance and dispute resolution firm, created when Berryman Lace Mawer merged with Scottish outfit HBM Sayers way back in 2014, has made the A* grade in work/life balance. With major centres in London and Manchester, and outposts in Ireland and Scotland, BLM’s core practice of insurance may not be as eye-catching as other practice areas but with eons of hours freed up in the evening, who needs glamour?
Blake Morgan, a firm spanning South England from London and Southampton across to Oxford and onto Cardiff, not only scored A* for work/life balance but also hit jackpot by making it into the top ten best arrive-and-leave times.
One of the interesting points about striking the perfect equilibrium between your life and your work is that no one minds work interfering on occasion. They also don’t mind as long as periods of really hard graft are recognised by the partners. As one rookie puts it: “Although there are times when working late is inevitable, this is acknowledged and is not the norm.” Neatly summarised by another with the observation: “It varies but I am not moaning!”
The firm has a mish-mash of areas of expertise and client base and that includes a professional regulatory team representing the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and the Bar Standards Board (BSB). So that must keep its lawyers on their toes…
There does appear to be some imbalance between departments which has fuelled some resentment, as one insider grumbles: “Different teams work different hours. Construction has its pinch points (adjudications) where long hours are necessary.” And here’s the rub: “… a bit galling when you walk out into an empty car park at 10pm and realize that 95% of the firm has gone home, had its dinner and is probably in bed by now.” Another junior lawyer added, however, that this would only apply to “a couple of areas”.
Congratulations to Browne Jacobson, a full-service firm with good-quality work across a good range of practice areas (they do a lot of work defending the public sector: representing over 50 hospital trusts, as well as councils) for making it to our top ten.
This national firm based in the Midlands is a friendly, level-headed sort of place and at least one insider is ebullient: “For the quality of work, the size of firm and the pay, I would imagine you would be hard pressed to find a top 60 law firm with a better work/life balance”. The only qualification to this was that there was some variety between departments: “Commercial tends to be the longest [hours]”. But a deal’s a deal, after all. And dealmakers wait for no man (or woman).
Browne Jacobson’s Manchester office in Spinningfields was opened a couple of years ago with much ado and a goal of offering a more flexible working environment: “[it will] give our employees greater flexibility in the way they choose to work” said one senior member at the time.
DWF scooped a place not only in Legal Cheek’s top ten firms for work/life balance but also came up trumps on its average arrive-and-leave times for 2019. So we can be pretty confident that a healthy attitude to work is something DWF can deliver on. As one insider put it, the firm’s work/life balance is: “Pretty bloody great to be honest — would not trade it right now.”
Though there might be some variety between seats, one trainee said that despite being in a banking seat they were: “almost always out by 6.30-7pm”.
DWF is an ambitious and growing firm, originally a Northern/regional player, latterly expanding into London and internationally. It looks as if this City-style firm with City-style ambitions paying decent salaries but only really demanding regional hours.
This is Fieldfisher’s third year in the top ten law firms for work/life balance, which is impressive given our less-than-secure times. The firm has continued its growth with a series of European openings in Italy and Holland. Given its sumptuous London office on the north bank of the River Thames, it’s the perfect springboard for your evening out or jog along the Thames Path — and it appears Fieldfisher makes such activities feasible.
As with many things in life, it’s also relative. Fieldfisher, as a City player, easily in the top 30 firms in the country so its work/life balance is, according to our spies, “great compared to other City firms”. You do have to pack a lot in because you’ll be expected to clock up 1,500 billable hours. But the rewards could be dreamy: Fieldfisher’s top-grossing partner (under the lockstep system) last year earned a cool £3 million putting them almost on a par with magic circle partners: Allen & Overy’s top partner taking home £3.5 million.
A repeat top ten law firm for work/life balance, Forsters is an elegant practice based in Mayfair doing private client and real estate work. It’s done very well in the era of the high-net-worth individual and pays its staff well to boot. One insider described the work/life balance as “great” and added: “I am actively encouraged to pursue my extra-curricular weekday activities.” Yes, you read that correctly: weekday activities are thumbs-up.
Targets are 1,300 billable hours per year which is certainly better than some other firms who have similar average arrive-and-leave figures but are expecting more (perhaps up to 1,500-1,600 billable hours) from your time. This isn’t an anonymous City-style workhouse, it’s an intimate one-office outfit that may suit your busy life down to the ground.
Irwin Mitchell has consistently received accolades for delivering on work/life balance for its lawyers, making it into our top ten for the third year running (and always also doing exceptionally well on its arrive-and-leave times). “Everyone down tools at 5pm” at this national firm of 14 offices, says one insider. It has made some small-firm acquisitions, and moved its Manchester crew to a shiny new space.
No wonder then that one rookie describes the firm’s work/life balance as “exceptionally good”. There are references to a whole “one-hour lunch break” and “added coffee breaks to boot.” Another says: “A standard day in my current seat is 9am – 5pm; whilst this isn’t the norm, the work/life balance here is a real perk.” One junior lawyer is equally positive: “A trainee telling you that they stayed until 8pm would be met with gasps of shock.” Nor is this just about decent hours. It looks as if there is also a healthy aversion to ‘presenteeism’: “The firm encourages flexible and agile working so it is easy to work from home or another office when necessary.”
Mills & Reeve
This East-Anglian-headquartered law firm has some great work in areas such as tech and life sciences, and posted excellent turnover and bonuses at the end of 2018 (there was £2 million of love to spread around the firm). Plus it’s doing well on work/life balance for the second year running, and posted an excellent leave time of, wait for it, 5.45pm! That’s, like, really early, particularly if you don’t have an annual hours target. But it is also true that the staff have an arrival time of 8.41am. So it looks as if Mills & Reeve staff are early birds who work hard — and then leave. Taking around twenty trainees a year in the regions, staff can buy extra holiday and, it appears, actually manage to take it as well.
The ability to achieve that perfect work/life balance may vary depending on the location of the office and the seat: real estate, corporate and banking seats being victim to 7pm exits, apparently, but others are “more relaxed”.
Royds Withy King
This well-established, Bath-based firm slam-dunked in Legal Cheek’s arrive-and-leave time scores by being the firm officially with the shortest working day. No wonder then that it also finds its place on the work/life balance leaderboard, and that one insider comments: “I rarely work later than 6, and have never been required to come in on a weekend.” It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, that one rookie observed that there were differences between the seats and that the balance is: “very dependent on department.”
Royds Withy King has been ranked in the Top 100 Best Mid-sized Companies to Work For in the past five years, so they are clearly doing something very right indeed. It has a broad commercial offering and a healthy private wealth practice plus some interesting areas of expertise such as bloodstock and racing. A recent alliance with a firm advising Michelin star restaurants and chefs sounds pretty juicy too.
The firm with the best work/life balance will be announced at the Legal Cheek Awards 2019 on 21 March at the Cheesegrater in London.
Peruse all of the firms’ new 2018-19 survey scorecards — including training, quality of work, perks and much more — via the Legal Cheek Firms Most List 2018-19.