Earlier this week, ‘Magic Circle’ firm Clifford Chance announced the details of its two-month sabbatical programme. This initiative will be offered, for the time being, to a comparatively select group of lawyers within the firm. However, the fact that the global legal giant is offering a detailed policy at all, represents a significant shift and could encourage more firms to follow suit.
Clifford Chance are by no means the only UK law firm to afford such a benefit to their staff. Stewarts Law started its own scheme in 2014, though only for the benefit if its equity partners. Farrer & Co have also put a sabbatical policy in place which can, in theory, be utilised by all though applications made by non-equity personnel are judged strictly on a case-by-case basis.
It used to be that the idea of taking any time out from one’s career was viewed with extreme caution. A 2017 survey conducted by travel site Opodo revealed that, even today, concerns remain. Whilst 65% of the 2,000 British respondents who took part in the consultation would consider extended leave, only 20% said their workplace would allow them to take such a break.
This statistic does seem rather surprising especially since there is stark evidence that a sabbatical can be of real benefit to the employer and the employee. For instance, the Opodo survey highlighted that 18% of British people who go on sabbatical do so to learn a new skill, whilst 13% use the time to gain experience in a new field of work. Clearly those who invest time in pursuing an MBA or developing a new facet may have something very tangible to show for their time away from the office. However, sabbaticals can have other significant benefits.
At its simplest level, a sabbatical is a good way to take a break, refocus and refresh. Some companies offer paid sabbaticals to enable their staff to do just that. McDonalds permits eligible employees an eight-week paid sabbatical for every 10 years of full-time continuous service with the company. Patagonia offers sabbaticals through their ‘Environmental Internship Program’. This initiative allows “employees from all parts of the company… (up to) two months away from their regular roles to work for the environmental group of their choice while continuing to earn their pay check and benefits”. Moreover, other professional service firms have already established their own policy. Deloitte, for example, sets out two options including one month unpaid for any reason or three to six months partially paid, provided staff utilise their time to “pursue personal or professional growth opportunities”.
Set against these three examples, the opportunity unveiled by Clifford Chance may not appear so generous. The Law Society Gazette reports that the two-month sabbaticals will be unpaid. Applications will also be restricted in the UK to certain teams such as Finance Practice, Capital Markets and TMT. That said, it is certainly a sign that the characteristically conservative legal services market is beginning to change.
One reason may be the recognition that we are now working longer office hours than ever before. There is certainly far more focus these days on wellbeing and rightly so. Indeed, 43% of UK respondents to the Opodo survey stated that they took a sabbatical to improve their mental health. Moreover, it could be suggested that sabbaticals are becoming more than just a perk, but a necessity in the recruitment toolkit in order to attract top candidates.
As millennials continue to enter and rise through the ranks of the job market, the traditional model of the corporate treadmill is becoming less favourable. These newcomers demand a fresh approach to building their careers and are looking for job opportunities offering more flexibility and the chance to build life experiences alongside developing valuable skills in the office.
Clifford Chance will, no doubt, be followed by other firms seeking to make themselves ever more attractive and it is not too fanciful to imagine that sabbaticals, including paid ones, are going to become a significant tool designed to lure the very best talent.