Unplanned employee absences take a toll on any business, but they are especially problematic for people-centric industries like the legal profession. Law firms rely on attorneys to bring in revenue from the hourly fees they collect in exchange for legal services. If legal professionals are not present to render those services, then no fees can be collected, leading to both a loss of revenue and a potential loss of a client.
Legal sector employee absence has increased significantly over the past few years. In 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 2.5% absence rate among legal occupations with a lost worktime rate of 1.4%. Last year (2022), the legal absence rate grew to 3.2%, with the rate of lost work time also increasing to 1.7%. Clearly, there has been a shift in the legal workforce that has led to this trend of rising employee absenteeism in law firms and other parts of the legal sector.
Absence management for legal professionals is a formidable challenge. To mitigate the effects of unplanned absences, law firms must construct strategies that promote the health of their staff while finding ways to keep workflow uninterrupted. Read on to learn about the unique challenges of managing attorney absenteeism and how to overcome those challenges.
Challenges of Employee Absenteeism in Law Firms
Absenteeism has a multifaceted effect on law firms that includes far more than just financial losses. Frequent absences interrupt the workflows that exist within the firm, leading to delays for customers and increased workloads for other staff members. Let’s take a moment to examine a number of these challenges and the strain they place on the law firm in greater detail.
Stress and Work Distribution
Historically, the legal sector has been regarded as one of the most stressful career industries, a fact which remains true in the current job climate. In an analysis that assessed the self-reported stress of employees across various industries between 2010 and 2021, the Washington Post found that the single most stressful occupation belonged to lawyers. The long hours, deadlines, and high pressure to perform that often come with the legal profession likely contribute to this overarching feeling of stress in law firms.
In an already stressful environment, employee absenteeism only piles on more stress. If an attorney frequently misses work, other members of the firm will have to pick up and manage their cases while still trying to juggle their own. This can lead to poor service for the client, as an overworked attorney cannot perform to the best of their ability. That attorney may also be struggling to get up to speed on the details of the case, or they may lack the unique expertise required to properly manage it.
These problems are especially difficult for understaffed law firms. Attorneys may already find themselves working more than they can manage, only to have to perform extra tasks on top of their usual workload. Such an increase in stress can take a significant toll on the wellness of employees, even leading to medical leave or resignation. It’s important to promote a healthy and fair work distribution among attorneys to maintain staff members’ health.
Client Service and Reputation
Employee absenteeism in law firms affects not only other members of the firm but also clients. Clients, of course, are the main source of revenue for a law firm, paying fees in exchange for advice and assistance from a legal professional.
If a client has become accustomed to working with one attorney only for that attorney to be frequently absent or unavailable, they may become frustrated and take their business elsewhere. Even worse, they could damage the firm’s reputation by spreading the word that the attorneys are unreliable or disorganized. Since many firms rely on referrals and reviews to gain new clients, this can be a massive detriment to business.
Absenteeism could lead to mismanagement of cases as well. An attorney may miss an important deadline due to their absence, delaying legal proceedings. In severe cases, such mistakes may result in litigation due to legal malpractice, which could eat into a substantial amount of the law firm’s time and financial resources.
On some occasions, absenteeism may drive law firms to outsource in order to cover their workload. They may choose to hire temporary staff to fill in the gaps. Paying extra staff while also covering PTO in the absence of an attorney can quickly add up to a large and unsustainable cost. Similarly, the firm may decide to instead offer overtime to internal employees. Overtime pay also accumulates rapidly, leaving firms drowning in operational costs that they cannot cover.
Understandably, employee absenteeism leads to decreased productivity for law firms, which is quite challenging to overcome. But, by acknowledging these challenges, it may become easier to formulate effective strategies to manage the impact of absenteeism.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
Law firms must operate within the boundaries of the law while upholding their ethical responsibilities toward both their employees and their clients. These considerations make navigating the landscape of employee leaves and absences quite difficult. Here, we will explore the rights of employees as well as the obligations that a law firm must meet in the context of employee absenteeism.
Like any other business, law firms must comply with the federal and state laws that regulate employee leaves and absences. One of these statutes is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA provides unpaid, job-protected leave to eligible employees for family or medical reasons, including the birth or adoption of a child, a serious health condition, or caring for a family member with a serious health condition.
Another important law to consider is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires businesses to accommodate employees with disabilities, which may include making modifications to employee leave policies. Law firms must keep both of these laws in mind when crafting employee absence policies in order to protect the rights of their employees and avoid legal ramifications in the future.
Law Firm Obligations
Ethical considerations regarding employee leaves and absences extend beyond mere legal requirements. Law firms should strive to maintain transparency and fairness in their leave policies. Take time to ensure that employees are aware of their rights and the proper procedures for requesting leave by communicating frequently, offering training sessions, and making resources readily accessible. Through effective communication, contingency planning, and training, law firms can mitigate the impact of employee absences on clients.
Effective Absence Management Solutions
Now that we have situated the problems that arise from employee absenteeism, the time has come to discuss how to overcome these law firm HR challenges. Let’s tackle a number of practical strategies law firms can use for total absence management.
Revising Leave Policies
A well-crafted and flexible leave policy should ensure compliance with necessary legal requirements while also addressing the unique needs of the population of attorneys at the law firm. Take steps to revise existing leave policies until they are:
- Clear and comprehensive. Employees should always know or be able to quickly figure out the procedures for requesting leave.
- Flexible and inclusive. Provide a range of leave options (PTO, unpaid leave, flexible scheduling, etc.) to accommodate staff needs and reduce unscheduled absences.
Law firms may also choose to put contingency plans in place to help smoothly transition an employee’s responsibilities to another colleague during an absence. This type of forward-thinking lessens the amount of disruption that occurs in client service and ongoing case management.
Some law firms incorporate leave pools into their policies as well. A leave pool allows employees to contribute their excess paid leave to a fund that can then be used to cover other colleagues when an emergency arises. Such collaborative approaches may foster comradery and increased teamwork among attorneys while also reducing the strain of sudden absences.
Promoting Employee Wellness
A great way to reduce absenteeism is to create a better work environment. Attorneys face an extremely stressful job with a high volume of work. Law firms can incorporate certain features into their leave policies that promote the well-being of their employees, leading to a decrease in absenteeism. Examples of these changes include:
- Wellness and physical health incentives. Offer gym discounts, ergonomic workstations, health screenings, and more to encourage wellness among employees.
- Mental health support. Provide access to mental health resources like counseling services and EAPs to support employees and help them prioritize their health.
- Flexible work arrangements. Promote a healthy work-life balance by allowing employees to telecommute or compress their workweeks as needed.
Technology’s Role in Absence Management
One of the best HR solutions for law firms, especially those struggling to manage employee absences, is implementing new technology. Modern HR software can streamline the whole process of absence management while also providing data-driven insights for better decision-making and ensuring continued compliance with federal and state guidelines.
Solutions like Redstone HR empower attorneys to take leave management into their own hands, providing access to necessary policies and procedures and allowing them to request time off directly through the portal. Managers can then easily keep track of leave requests and create, update, and implement their own customized leave policies at any time.
Leave policies often become complicated at larger firms. FMLA absence management, for example, can be difficult to navigate, especially if multiple attorneys need to leave at the same time. With a technology solution in hand, law firms can make sure their employees receive the time off they both need and deserve.
By implementing technology and re-evaluating current leave policies, law firms can significantly reduce the rate of employee absenteeism in the legal workplace. Combining these strategies creates a more resilient, healthier, and happier workforce, ultimately benefiting both operational efficiency and the well-being of employees.
Reach out today to learn how Redstone HR can help you implement effective absence management strategies across your workplace.