September 19, 2021

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Khaitan requests people-friendly WFH policies with best intentions but can it work without teeth? Haigreve thinks it can

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Khaitan rolls out new humane guidelines: But are they compatible with hard work and high profits?

Khaitan & Co has internally rolled out a set of guidelines to improve staff and fee-earners’ well-being as the pandemic has caused turnovers and workloads to grow, while traditional physical office support networks and the ability to switch off have largely disappeared for many.

The principles, entitled “people well-being framework” in a document circulated internally by Khaitan director of human resources, Amar Sinhji, includes solid guidelines and pointers on how life in a law firm can be less stressful.

The document has been shared with us by the firm and the text is reproduced in full at the end of this article below.

The framework includes provisions for:

  • special 30 days of sick leave (in addition to usual sick leave) for when staffers or their family fall ill due to Covid-19 and “related complications”;
  • over and above that, any staff or fee-earner could request “wellness leave” for a period decided by HR and team leaders if the staffer were experiencing “mental health, burnout, anxiety, chronic stress or similar ailments”;
  • if someone works “extended hours for a prolonged periods”, partners are “expected to grant recuperation leave” of “two to three days” to fee-earners once a deal has ended or “critical milestones” were reached;
  • provision for weekly “switch-off periods” of at least 24 hours on Saturdays or Sunday to allow for “uninterrupted personal time” (but “depending on practice needs”). There would not be an expectation to respond to emails or calls “unless absolutely urgent”. This policy would initially only be applicable until the end of June 2021 for now;
  • partners were recommended to ensure workloads and timelines for clients would be “reasonable” and could be managed during the week. From 8pm on Fridays to Mondays 8am (i.e., the weekend) the framework recommended that emails and calls should be reduced;
  • the framework recommends that no one should call anyone else in the firm “without prior notice (ideally by email or message)” unless there was an “urgent client situation”;
  • team leaders were encouraged to have “weekly or frequent social catch-up calls” with teams.

All sounds great but…

The policy might seem like plain common sense on how to treat colleagues sensibly but that’s not a given in the corporate legal industry, necessarily (as also reflected in several recent LI reader discussions, including on how firms are dealing with Covid, and an unverified thread on Khaitan and a possible response).

Given that, the bigger question to then ask is: it looks great on paper, but will senior, junior partners and fee-earners – including senior associates – actually keep to the spirit of the policy.

After all, billings are still king and there will always be pressure on teams to generate maximum turnover on short timelines.

In other words, does the policy have any teeth?

“Whether our People Well-Being policy has ‘teeth or not’ will be seen by the spirit in which it is actually implemented,” said Sinhji. “Such initiatives can never be mandated for strict implementation. And we have enough faith in the maturity of our Partners to ensure implementation of this framework in the spirit in which it is meant to be.”

“There could be a couple of deviants but that happens with all policies,” he added, noting that the policy had “buy-in from all partners”, to whom it was first presented and discussed with, they gave input on and only then was it rolled out for implementation.

Partner buy in: Leading from the top?

When asked, the firm’s de facto (but not literal) senior-cum-managing partner Haigreve Khaitan told us that “you have to start at the top”, “set a certain culture and get-buy in” in order for the framework to actually work.

“This applies universally and this is intended really to be followed,” Khaitan said. “Nothing is perfect in this world but if we get 75%, 80% [compliance] I think we would go a long way.”

People would have to “set the culture”, which should be achievable because “we like to work with people, who are not only great mentors and teachers but also nice human beings who will look at this and accommodate”, according to Khaitan.

So what was he personally doing to set such culture?

“From my perspective, I will follow this policy to a T,” he said. “I can tell you when i call people, as we are speaking now, I would never call you randomly, I would always message you and check that you are free and want to speak and then speak with you, unless if there’s a fire.”

“Maybe 1 in 100 times I would pick up the phone and call you,” he added. “I would follow that across the board when calling partner, junior or secretary, I would follow that and respect that. If there’s an absolute urgency we stretch it out but everyone in the firm knows that’s my style and we follow it.”

Clients are a different breed?

Some associates and partners might reasonably say that all this is more easily said than done if you have a client decide to call you 11pm on a Friday shouting at you that they need some document urgently turned around by EoB (end of ‘business’) on Saturday.

“This rule doesn’t apply to clients, it’s all internal,” admitted Khaitan. “In all of this we are not slowing down vis-a-vis our clients, whether in terms of delivery timelines, execution capabilities. That is not what is intended what is intended, we are intending a better working environment.”

That said, he added that there was also “no point in agreeing to unachievable deadlines with clients and then failing and giving an inferior product”.

If there was very high client pressure for instance, “we’ll cover for each other”, he said. “If there’s a lawyer who has a Saturday off, we’ll make sure there’s an auto-message, I’m off for today, please call so-and-so, or please email so-and-so, and the other lawyer on the project will cover up.”

“We are all understanding, intelligent lawyers,” noted Khaitan. “Let’s say there’s a project to be done and signed over the weekend: of course we’ll stretch, so there will be exceptions, all of these policies have these carve outs but this is the general policy.”

“On another note, you don’t want to have a firm or organisation of unhappy people every day, you can’t deliver good work if you have unhappy people.”

More work and overwork?

Again, this all sounds well and good, but what to do if there are simply not enough hands on deck to be able to handle all the work coming in and there simply are not enough hours in the day?

In March, for instance, the tragic death of young Khaitan associate Devansh Srivastava was in some messages on social media rumoured to have been related to work stress.

Khaitan said that the policy was not a reaction to Srivastava’s death, which had not been caused by specific issues of work-life balance but an underlying health issue.

“He was working from home, family was with him and we were in constant touch with the family,” said Khaitan. “We lost him and another 50-year-old lawyer, again a very nice person, [11] days ago, but those instances are nothing to do with this policy,” he explained.

However, by all accounts it is not possible to deny that the amount of work has increased.

We asked whether Khaitan too had a record year of turnovers (as rumoured of many other of the top corporate firms during the pandemic, such as Trilegal that had posted “exceptional” figures over the 2020-21 financial year).

“That is correct,” Khaitan confirmed but claimed that hiring of fee-earners had increased sufficiently to bear that additional load, and furthermore due to the use of technology things had become “a lot more efficient during these times”.

From an HR perspective too, systems would be put in place in order to make it easier to monitor compliance at different levels with the policy (despite the lack of teeth).

Sinhji said that those making complaints or extraordinary leave requests under the new policy would “approach partners directly”, and this would then be captured in a computer system. “We will have to make changes in the back end of our HRIS [human resources information system] to capture all such requests and update individual leave records.”

But even with best laid plans, as acknowledged by Sinhji and Khaitan, ultimately this is not purely an HR or technical issue, but will boil down to people and culture and leading by example.

From that perspective, it appears that Khaitan has laid out the plans as well as can be in the circumstances, at least for now.

Khaitan’s full well-being framework

PEOPLE WELL-BEING FRAMEWORK

The Firm values its people and their continued well-being is paramount to its ethos and long-term success.

The ongoing pandemic has resulted in tremendous hardship and stress being experienced by each one of us. With the second wave of the pandemic and resultant prolonged WfH measures, many of us are experiencing burn out, exhaustion and other forms of mental / physical distress.

In wake of this crisis and with the long-term wellness of its members in mind, the following policy framework is being implemented with immediate effect:

Special Sick Leave

1. A member can avail of Special Sick Leave for COVID-19, for a period of up to 2 weeks, if such member or her / his immediate family has contracted COVID-19 or related complications.

2. This (COVID-19 leave) will be treated as “Special Sick Leave” and will be in addition to the normal annual entitlement of 30 days of leave.

3. Immediate family will include all family members residing in the same house or where a member is required to travel to look after her / his parents or the immediate family in another city.

4. COVID-19 Leave will be effective from 1 January 2021 and will be in force until further advice.

Modified Recuperation Leave

1. Partners are expected to grant Recuperation Leave of 2 to 3 days to a fee-earner after end of a critical milestone on a matter or a transaction, where she / he has worked extended hours for a prolonged period.

2. Rotating fee-earners across demanding clients and matters is also recommended to allow for some ease up in workload and pressure.

Switch-Off Period

1. As extended WfH continues, the lines between workday and end of workday, weekdays and weekends have blurred.

2. To provide some sense of boundary, it is critical that each member respects the weekends and as far as possible, end of day timings, as personal time.

3. Client engagement and management: It is recommended that the workload should be managed such that it is limited to critical or urgent work during weekends. Partners should make sure that work is taken on and implemented in a manner that the timelines for client deliverables are reasonable, realistic and managed during the week. If required, partners should have an amicable conversation with their clients to set reasonable timelines or seek extensions where required or possible.

4. Switch-off Period: Depending on practice needs, each practice will be required to schedule a weekly Switch-off Period of 24 hours, either on a Saturday or Sunday, to allow uninterrupted personal time. During the Switch-off Period, members will not be expected to respond to emails or calls, unless absolutely urgent.

5. Reduced Emails and Calls: It is also recommended that members should reduce emails and calls during the weekends, starting 8:00 pm on Friday till 8:00 am on Monday.

6. Switch-off Periods will come into immediate effect and will be applicable initially till end of June 2021.

Wellness Leave

1. Any member who is experiencing mental health, burnout, anxiety, chronic stress or similar ailments, can request for Wellness Leave from their Team Leader(s) and Human Resources.

2. Period for the Wellness Leave for such member will be determined basis discussions between the Regional / Cluster HR Head and the concerned Team Leader(s), basis the need of the concerned member.

Recommended Best Practice for Communication

1. MS Teams, WhatsApp and other digital and telecommunication platforms have made it easy to reach anyone instantly. However, it is critical that members, including Partners, appreciate personal time during the course of the workday and otherwise.

2. Partners and members are recommended NOT to call other members, without prior notice (ideally by email or message). Of course, this does not apply in urgent client situations.

3. The Firm reposes trust in its members that they will continue to work in a professional and trustworthy manner, such that needs of the Firm’s clients are met.

Wellness Engagement

1. We are in the process of setting up Small Group Engagement sessions on wellness and work-life balance and all Members are encouraged to join these sessions.

2. Members should also reach out to Human Resources for any specific requirement relating to their individual well-being.

3. In the absence of collegial gatherings in office during WfH (formal / informal), all Team Leaders are encouraged to have weekly or frequent social catch-up calls with their teams.

These sessions will allow for some non-work related conversations and to reinforce a feeling of belongingness in team members and to allow them to share their experiences.

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