Data from legal recruitment firm Douglas Scott’s annual salary survey – which polled more than 3,000 legal professionals – has found that lawyers are working longer hours than ever before, yet productivity remains a challenge for many firms. In this article, Douglas Scott founder Kathryn Riley looks at what law firms can do to embrace innovation and tackle the productivity puzzle

Artificial intelligence, automation and other new technologies are propelling the legal industry forwards, bringing that elusive work/life balance ever closer. Yet despite this continued innovation, productivity remains a core challenge, as evidenced in NatWest’s 2018 Legal Benchmarking Report.

However, we know that subdued productivity is not symptomatic of work ethic or commitment, the legal industry being populated as it is by high-achievers who work tremendously hard.

Our latest salary survey supports this sentiment, revealing that legal professionals are working an average of 6.21 hours per week longer than their contracted hours – an increase on 2017’s average of five hours and 2016’s average of 5.76 hours. Though this adds almost an entire day onto the working week, some will no doubt be surprised to hear that this figure isn’t even higher – I don’t doubt that there are some professionals working significantly more hours within a typical week.

While this commitment is a real positive for the industry, we know that working longer hours doesn’t always guarantee quality output. It’s therefore encouraging to see that firms are recognising this, with a continued focus across the board on supporting professionals to work in a more flexible way. Our data shows an increase in flexible working, with flexi-time now forming part of the benefits package of more than a quarter of legal professionals.

Talent

Those on top are taking the most strategic approach to recruitment and retention; it’s no longer simply about filling roles but about finding the people who will shape the future of a law firm. New technologies and demand for emerging skills are changing the focus, although finding the right balance between people, purpose and culture remains paramount.

The old blueprint has been replaced by an agile approach – where once a rigid structure would typically be the norm within most firms, those that are thriving tend to be diverse and nimble, yet clear in approach. Firms must remain focused on a clear recruitment and retention strategy, with a flexible structure and a willingness to think outside the box.

Technology

Successful firms will continue to embrace advances in technology – conversations around robots replacing professionals or making lawyers redundant, while concerning for some, are hugely short-sighted. The workplace, whatever the industry, is becoming increasingly hybrid, although trailblazers who are already utilising new technologies will reap the benefits in the long-term. It’s also important to remember that talented professionals don’t want to work with old technologies.

New innovations – whether technologies, systems, processes or even ethos – can increase efficiencies, improve accuracy and even enhance client service, but only if it’s ingrained within a firm’s operations and culture. Getting this right is key for law firms focused on growth and remaining competitive in an evolving industry.

And while innovation is driving operational and procedural changes, firms shouldn’t overlook the many ways it can be used to support employees. Flexible and virtual working within the legal industry would have been pie in the sky a decade ago, but advancements in technology have made it a reality.

Maximising productivity can only be achieved when talent and technology meet and support one another. Will it end the long hours working culture? The jury’s out, but what we do know is that those firms committed to embracing new technology and more innovative ways of working will be first port of call for top talent.