The Importance of Flexible Working Hours, or How to Make a Millennial Associate Work On a Weekend and Not Resent You

A few weeks ago, I joined a partner at one of my old law firms for breakfast. As we chatted, he shared the following story with me. 

At a partner’s retreat, his firm brought in a millennial consultant for a presentation. (No, that consultant was not me). During the presentation, the consultant presented the following scenario: 

You have an important client who calls you on Friday afternoon with a project that needs to be completed by Monday morning. You’ll need help from your trusty associate but you know that your associate already has weekend plans. What do you do?

The consultant looked to the audience of partners for an answer, and her eyes settled upon the partner at my old firm: “What would you do?”  Her question sparked this interaction:

Partner: “I’ve never asked anyone to work a weekend unless I was working right alongside them.  So, I’d tell the associate that we had to work together on the client’s project over the weekend.”

Consultant: “No! You can’t do that!”

Partner:“But who’s going to do the work?” 

Consultant: “You’ll have to tell the client that the project can’t be completed by Monday morning.”

Partner: “You tell the client that!”

The partner’s quick response brought laughter to the room, but the interaction didn’t solve a critical question: what do you do when a client needs assistance outside of regular business hours?

After all, clients may have true emergencies that pop up at night or during weekends, and they look to their lawyer as a counselor in every sense of the word. A good lawyer can’t say, “I know you need me right now, but just sit tight for 48 hours and I’ll get back to you.”

So again, the critical question is: how do you make your millennial associates happy while still being able to respond to client demands outside of regular business hours?

The answer is allowing your associates to work more flexible hours in the first place. After all, if you hold the regular business hours to be sacred, then your associate will hold non-business hours to be equally sacred.

In other words, if your associate can’t step away from the office for a child’s soccer game on a Friday at 3pm, then you can’t ask that associate to step into the office on a Saturday morning at 9am. However, if you allow your associates to work flexible hours and trust them to organize their time efficiently, you earn the right to ask them to work irregular hours when the need arises.

Now, let’s get back to the consultant’s key question to the partner at my old firm: what should you do? It’s a difficult question, but only if you haven’t already institutionalized flexible working hours at your law firm.

If you’ve already created an environment where work and life can happen during business hours, then you have the right to ask your millennial associate to give up a night or a weekend here or there for the good of a client too. And they probably won't hold it against you!