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It’s been almost 40 years since the government last reduced the average number of hours in the Australian working week. Despite massive productivity increases in the period since “38 ordinary hours” became a fixture in most employment contracts, few have seriously considered a further reduction. Until now.

After a several-decade stasis, the prospect of a four-day work week is no longer a fantasy. Results of successful experiments pop up every few months. In two widely reported large-scale trials in Iceland, employees worked for 35-36 hours per week instead of 40 with no commensurate cut in pay. Productivity was unaffected. Health, work-life balance and overall happiness increased. Spain, Belgium and the U.K. have announced similar experiments, and a range of companies are following suit.

A recent survey of 4,000 U.S. full-time workers showed that 83 per cent favour a four-day work week. Many unions, employee activists and academics seek to hasten its introduction. Employers keep a close eye on its progress. But is the legal profession — seeped in tradition and reticent to change — ready, willing and able to embrace such drastic reform?

It wasn’t always considered drastic.

In the first half of last century, some economists were more concerned about a future with too much leisure than one of burnout and excessive work. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes — the father of modern macroeconomics — published a short essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes predicted technological advancements would mean “the standard of life one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today.” How would we keep busy when the economy became so productive that we would only have to work 15 hours per week? Keynes wondered:

“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.”

For a time, Keynes’ prediction seemed accurate. In America, Australia, and much of the developed world, six days’ work became five, 50 hours of weekly labour fell to 40, and later 38. And then we stopped moving. Until the pandemic, when we went backwards.

Since COVID-19 emerged, the conversation has focused on hybrid work, flexible working arrangements and a changing work dynamic.

Firms have been lauded for embracing new ways of working almost overnight, and the benefits are plentiful. But the detriments can be too. By definition, working from home has removed the barrier between work and home. When a laptop or smartphone can effectively substitute for an office, many white-collar workers are never out of reach. Many employers expect it. And without a right to disconnect — which has been legislated in several European countries — working from home has shifted the balance towards work and away from leisure.

Research from the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work and others shows that the average Australian worker is working 6.1-7.3 unpaid hours per week, 15-25 per cent more than before the pandemic. That number is almost certainly higher in the law. The atrophying of people’s leisure time is even worse for women, who, in addition to the unpaid hours they commit to their employer, perennially put in more time domestically.

So, 92 years on from Keynes’ forward-thinking thesis, you would be hard pressed to find anyone accomplishing their full-time work load in 15 hours per week and complaining about the ‘permanent problem’ of occupying their leisure.

So where did Keynes go so wrong?

He wasn’t wrong about productivity. According to Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman, “the U.S. economy is right on track to reach Keynes’ eight-fold multiple by 2029”. The outlook is similar in Australia, including (according to law firm leaders who spoke to LSJ) in its legal profession.

Michael Bradley is the founder and Managing Partner of Marque Lawyers — a relatively new and innovative Sydney law firm.

Bradley says, “the volume of work you can get done in a particular period of time [is] exponentially greater than it was when I started practice, purely because of technology.”

He cautions that tighter margins and increased competition mean “gains from productivity are not linear.” But still, he says, “many firms are more profitable; broadly the profession is more profitable.”

So why do we work just as hard?

“Because we have failed to use technology to make our lives better,” Bradley says.

“It has made the profession more ‘boundaryless’ — there are no fixed boundaries.”

Danny Gilbert, co-founder and managing partner of Gilbert + Tobin, says “all that technology has done has created a bigger appetite for output. You can now produce what I might have asked for [in a day] in a couple of hours, but there’s still 10 hours to go.”

Gilbert is describing a fundamental aspect of human nature — an aspect Keynes misread.

Instead of working enough to buy what we need, humans find new things to need. According to the Italian economists, Lorenzo Pecchi and Gustavo Pigga, “after an initial period of excitement, the average consumer grows accustomed to what he has purchased and… rapidly aspires to own the next product in line.”

Humans “have reference points that adjust upwards as their circumstances improve”, they write.

The effect is the same in the law. As a client learns that they can have more from their lawyers, they demand it. Law firms — with models dependent on client satisfaction — are eager to oblige.

Yet while humans’ fundamental desire for more may help explain why increased productivity is yet to reduce the demands on employees, it doesn’t explain why those employees acquiesce. If workers — who increasingly prioritise work-life balance, and are less and less loyal to their firms than their predecessors — reap the benefits of gains in productivity, why don’t they leave or demand better conditions?

The inconvenient truth is that benefits from productivity increases manifest unequally.

Inequality has risen steeply over the past 50 years. In 1965, CEOs were paid an average of 21 times their company’s typical worker’s salary. Today, that multiple is 351. While the same metric doesn’t apply in the law, there is another way to measure rising inequality in the legal profession: path to partnership. Today’s retiring partners took around seven years to become an equity holder of their firm. Today’s new partners take closer to 15.

Both Bradley and Gilbert acknowledge the time to partner has lengthened, though neither considers it a problem or offers solutions to reduce it.

“There is no natural requirement that anyone in a law firm will have an opportunity to become an owner,” says Bradley.

But as that opportunity becomes less and less attainable, inequality in the legal profession will continue to rise, and gains from productivity will be realised increasingly at the top.

Workers are beginning to notice.

“Younger people are demanding much more,” says Gilbert, predicting it will “make for a richer work environment.”

A recent Gallup survey of 13,085 employees found that above all else, workers were motivated by “a significant increase in income or benefits” and “greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing.”

Enter, the four-day work week.

Beginning in August this year, 20 organisations in Australia and New Zealand — across finance, retail, health, technology and construction — will join more than 100 organisations in the U.K. and North America trialling a shorter work week for six months with no reduction in pay. All will seek to abide by the ‘100:80:100’ rule: 100 per cent pay, working in 80 per cent of the time, achieving 100 per cent of usual productivity.

This is the gold standard of the four-day work week: reduced hours with no reduction in pay.

The global trial is being run by New Zealand not-for-profit advocacy group 4 Day Week Global, which says this new way of working will “improve business productivity [and] worker health outcomes, [strengthen] families and communities, challenge the gender equality issue and [result in] a more sustainable environment.”

Productivity is key. Try as one might to convince their employer that they should be willing to accept less profit in exchange for increased leisure and happiness, the employer is unlikely to budge. Instead, persuading bosses to transition to the four-day work week likely requires evidence that their business’s total output won’t be sacrificed.

So, how can we possibly get as much done in four days as we do in five?

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” wrote Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the British historian whose adage later became known as Parkinson’s Law.

Parkinson’s Law explains why Henry Ford was able to set a five-day standard week for Ford employees in 1926 instead of the prevalent six days at the time, theorising correctly that his workers would put more effort into the shorter workweek, and productivity would increase. Ford’s decision heralded in the five-day work week era, and close to 100 years later there is no reason to suggest a further day’s leisure would have a different result.

In August 2019, Microsoft trialled a four-day work week for its entire 2,300 person staff in Japan. According to the Guardian, “the shortened weeks led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40 per cent.”

New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian made its four-day work week permanent after a successful trial in 2018, which showed that job performance was maintained, stress levels were lower, team engagement higher, and work-life balance significantly improved.

Experiments in Iceland and Spain have reported similar results, and the legal profession is unlikely to be an exception.

Meetings could be shortened, scheduled only when necessary, or replaced by an email. Many emails could become instant messages. New technologies exist to improve task delegation — distributing work more evenly so as to avoid overwork for some and underutilisation for others. And crucially, research suggests that a less overworked, more energised, happier workforce will use its time more productively.

Two roadblocks remain.

“We are a service industry”, says Danny Gilbert.

“If the clients are going to be working five days a week, I don’t see how we couldn’t. Clients want things done, want you to be available. The sensibility is that it is traditionally the five-day work week.”

Gilbert is unwilling to disrupt that sensibility, at least for the moment.

“If the whole world shifts, we could adjust,” he says.

“I struggle to see how it would work very efficiently.”

Gilbert is the leader of a traditional law firm, which would be unlikely to forge the path of a four-day work week. That role may be more suited to Michael Bradley.

Bradley started Marque Lawyers to move away from the profession’s traditions. His firm’s website derides the “law as it is practised” as “dysfunctional… and mired in cynicism.” Like Gilbert, Bradley acknowledges that a four-day work week may be difficult for a service industry ‘operating in a five-day world.’ He calls this “a structural consideration”, but not an impossible obstacle.

“Having a four-day week wouldn’t mean we [all] work the same four days, or the same four days every week,” he says.

In 2021, the Danish commercial law firm Kromann Reumert introduced a flexible working policy under which some staff work four-day weeks.

“If it’s possible to take some days off during the weekend, of course it’s possible to take half a day off or a full day off during the week,” the firm’s head of People and Development Birgitte Brix Bendtsen told the New York Times.

Bentsen said that the general availability of the four-day option reduces any stigma when people clock off.

“Employees are just so much happier,” she told the Times.

Many of Bradley’s employees already work four days per week, or fewer – as do Gilbert + Tobin’s. Flexible working is nothing new, and increasingly even partners across the profession have ongoing part-time working arrangements. A transition to a permanent four-day day work week would be a significant change, but arguably nothing more than an extension of existing, widely accepted arrangements.

But unlike just about all other industries, there is one additional roadblock to the four-day work week in the law. While most professions charge their clients and customers based on output, law firms overwhelmingly bill based on input. Despite compelling research suggesting billing time contributes to poorer psychological outcomes for employees, the billable hour remains a staple of the legal profession.

If lawyers worked for four days instead of five — producing the same output but in 80 per cent of the time — total billable hours (and total firm revenue) would almost certainly decline.

Accordingly, a switch to value-based billing might be necessary for the four-day work week to become viable. It remains unlikely among traditional firms.

“It’s been very difficult over a long time to get clients to accept it as a proposition,” says Gilbert.

He reveals the firm has occasionally contemplated departing from the billable hour model, but says the complex nature of legal work, where “things don’t go smoothly [and] unexpected issues arise” makes it difficult to measure total cost at the start of a matter.

“It’s easier to measure these things on a time basis,” he says.

“That’s why hourly billing has lasted as long as it has.”

Some less traditional firms are demonstrating workable alternatives. Legal Vision, which calls itself a “market disruptor in the commercial legal services industry” assists clients through a membership model. Its clients pay a monthly fee in exchange for a wide range of legal services, which are all completed within five business days of request. The monthly fee covers the vast majority of work performed by Legal Vision’s employees. The remainder — known as “non-business as usual” work, including capital raises, complex disputes or technical advices — is billed on an hourly basis. Legal Vision is a private, incorporated company with shareholders. Gilbert + Tobin is among its investors.

Would the innovative firm consider a transition to the four-day work week?

“We have had a lot of conversations internally about [it],” says Georgina Gordon, Legal Vision’s Head of People.

“It’s not something we’re looking to trial or implement right now, but it’s a possibility down the track.”

Traditional, top-tier law firms may be unconvinced by Legal Vision’s success with the innovative membership model. For many of these firms, the complex, non-business as usual work for which Legal Vision charges by the hour is all that they do. Legal Vision is yet to demonstrate that more complex work can be billed in a non-traditional way.

Bradley’s Marque Lawyers — which is inundated with complex work including high-profile defamation cases — operates exclusively without timesheets. Depending on the client’s preference and the type of work, the firm charges a periodic retainer, or a fixed or capped fee.

“We don’t have perverse incentives that timesheets and hourly targets create,” Bradley says.

Instead, Bradley says his firm’s model “creates pretty much infinite flexibility”, fundamentally changing the relationship between the firm and its lawyers, who are not managed by time.

“People work hard when they need to and slack off when they can. There’s no culture of long hours,” he tells LSJ.

Having spent 20 years in a timesheet culture and 14 years in a non-timesheet culture, Bradley says he is much happier in the latter.

Surely, if any firm would be open to a four-day work week, it is his. “Yes”, he says.

“I don’t see any reason in principle why it couldn’t work.”

Bradley cites time’s elasticity, describing the five-day week as an arbitrary construct. “If you have less time you tend to be more efficient,” he says.

“We are very open minded about [a four-day work week] and probably will explore it more seriously.”

The rest of the profession will be watching.

As the old law and the new consider the future of work in a post-pandemic world, employees will continue agitating for change.

“The last couple of years challenged or destroyed many of our operating assumptions about how we can work together,” says Bradley.

Organisations like 4 Day Week Global have taken notice and seek to challenge the status quo. If its upcoming trial succeeds, do not be surprised if a law firm raises its hand to participate in the next one.