Guest Blogger and Harper Grey partner, Kim Yee, discusses her successful transition to a more flexible work arrangement (prior to COVID-19) and provides helpful advice for those looking to make a permanent switch.
Four and half years ago I approached my firm about the possibility of implementing a more flexible work arrangement. I know it’s hard but try and transport yourself back to a time when working from home wasn’t considered normal, it was a novel solution but one that I knew was going to make our lives easier. At the time, my husband and I were considering a move from the lower mainland to Vancouver Island, in part because of the high cost of living and some struggles that we were having with childcare. I was (and continue to be) very committed to my firm and I wanted to continue to work full time and pursue partnership. In our particular circumstances, moving to Vancouver Island was going to enhance my capacity to continue to contribute to the firm and provide a high level of service to clients while managing my family responsibilities. Such an arrangement was going to provide vital familial support when needed, such as when I was in trial or had other significant work commitments.
I ultimately sought an arrangement whereby I would work in the office two days per week (on average) and have the ability to telecommute (what we all know now as “working from home”) for the remainder of the week. While, at the time, this was new territory for all of us, I am pleased to say that my firm was open to the arrangement and it has worked well ever since. Now more than ever, lawyers are rethinking where they work and how they work. I am sharing my experience in the hopes that it will help other lawyers who are toying with the idea of making a permanent transition to a more flexible work arrangement.
As someone who experienced this transition with a high degree of success – and not in the face of a pandemic – I have some advice that you may find helpful for your own switch:
1. Be clear about your needs and what you’re asking for, before you ask.
It took me some time to identify what sort of change I needed to make in order to balance my family and work commitments. I began my research by speaking with colleagues and friends who had successfully negotiated an alternate arrangement. I also sought out people who were already living the life I was proposing and commuting from Vancouver Island to offices in downtown Vancouver. These individuals provided me with very practical advice which solidified my view that this could be done, and more importantly, done well. By doing some research and a whole lot of reflection about the practical realities of my practice (insurance and health law) I was able to come up with a viable plan.
2. Talk to the key people involved.
As lawyers, many of us work within a specific practice group or with a handful of other people within a firm. It was important to have discussions with those who would (potentially) be most affected by my alternative work arrangement before I formally made the request. Not only did these conversations go better than I expected, but I found that many of these people had really helpful advice and offered support. I was also able to directly address and appease any concerns they had. When the time came to make the formal request of our practice management committee, it was helpful to be able to say that I had spoken with the lawyers with whom I work closely and that they were on board.
3. Clearly articulate what you are asking for.
In my view, this is the most important piece. Some resistance to change may arise from fear of the unknown, and the term “flexible work arrangement” can mean many different things. I think that having a well laid out plan is vital in order to effectively address any concerns and show you have thought thoroughly through any pros and cons. In my case, I prepared a detailed memo which outlined what I was proposing which I provided to our practice management committee. I made it very clear that I remained committed to the firm and I discussed reasons why I was seeking to make a change. I also included a very detailed plan which outlined what my practice would look like on a day-to-day basis, the workflow that I envisioned with my team, how any expenses arising from my new arrangement would be dealt with, and what support I would require from the firm. I also outlined my thoughts regarding how this new arrangement could benefit the firm as well. For example, I explained the business initiatives that could potentially be pursued in light of the fact that I was going to be based in a different geographical area.
4. Suggest a trial period.
Firms may be more inclined to agree to a flexible work arrangement if there is a trial period during which it can be determined whether the new arrangement will in fact work well for everyone. A trial period may be important if you are relatively new to a firm, versus a more senior person with a well-established practice. If things do go well with a trial, you can then seek to make the arrangement more permanent. Another benefit of a trial run (because, let’s face it – this is new for you too) is that you can amend items from your original plan that maybe aren’t working as you planned, or better detail some items you were unsure about in the beginning.
5. Find alternative ways to contribute and engage.
For some, the term “flexible work arrangement” may conjure up worries that you may be hard to reach, not contributing to the same extent as other firm members, that you don’t care as much about your career, (the list goes on). With some planning and a clear intention to remain engaged, these stereotypes can be quickly overcome. I recommend finding ways in which you can remain engaged and can continue to contribute. This could include being proactive about mentoring others in the firm, volunteering to assist with firm management, making a concerted effort to participate in or attend firm functions, or creating your own opportunities to engage with staff and lawyers. Ultimately, your coworkers and colleagues probably miss working with you face to face, so it’s important to make this a reality whenever possible.
6. Keep the lines of communication open.
Having an alternate work arrangement is really a work in progress. It’s going to take some time and you may need to tweak things in order for the arrangement to continue to work well over the long run. As your practice evolves or your personal circumstances change, adjustments may need to be made to your plan. In my first year of my new arrangement I checked in regularly with the people that I worked closely with to ensure that things were going smoothly from their perspective. I remain receptive to feedback from those I work with, and vice versa.
I really urge anyone thinking about making a change to their work arrangement to simply go for it! For me, there have been so many benefits that have come from asking for what I needed. The fact that my firm was receptive to this and embraced this change has further deepened my commitment to them. I am thankful to work in a very progressive environment which supports the choices I’ve made as a female lawyer, and I am thankful to be at a firm which continues to make me feel like a supported and valued member.
This arrangement has also enabled me to have the best of both worlds in terms of being engaged with my kids and husband while practicing at a high level. I once feared that this may set me back or put me on a different trajectory, but with time I have found the opposite to be true. Over the last four years I have continued to have strong relationships with members of my firm and with clients, I have broadened my practice, improved my productivity, and have achieved my goal of partnership.
I am a strong believer that we can all create a work life that fits well with our personal circumstances, strengths, professional interests, and long-term goals. This is particularly true in the era we find ourselves in where utilizing technology to work remotely is the new norm, and many more lawyers are doing so now given the changes that have come about due to COVID-19.
About the Author
Kim Yee is a Partner at Harper Grey LLP and a member of their Insurance and Health Law Groups. Kim’s legal practice is broadly focused on matters associated with complex bodily injury claims which often involve complex causation issues. In 2016 Kim was recognized as one of Lexpert’s Leading Lawyers Under 40 in Canada and in 2017, she was recognized as a “Leading Lawyer to Watch” in the area of Litigation – Commercial Insurance by the Canadian Legal Lexpert Directory®. She shares her time between Vancouver and Vancouver Island and advises clients across British Columbia, and on occasion in Alberta.