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Women and the Law NewsletterThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

October 2006, vol. 12, no. 1

Flexible hours policies: Success strategies for you and your law firm

[The author would like to thank her Jenner & Block colleagues Erin Schrantz and Patricia Boye-Williams for their contributions to this article.]

All attorneys share a common aspiration—a career that allows for a rich, meaningful personal life coupled with ongoing opportunities for professional development and advancement. A recent survey by Edge International of 25-30 year old attorneys confirms once again that men and women alike are attracted by and motivated to stay at law firms that allow: 1) time for a personal life; 2) opportunities for advancement; 3) professional growth; 4) achievement; and, 5) interesting, challenging work. Developing effective flexible hours policies is no longer a women’s issue but a business imperative for law firms that want to recruit and to retain the best and brightest attorneys.
The dilemma facing law firms is how to make their flexible hours policies effective recruitment and retention benefits. The Project for Attorney Retention (“PAR”), an initiative of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, has concluded that most existing programs do little to stem attrition because they do not offer usable and effective programs. A similar conclusion was reached in a report recently published by the Women’s Bar of Massachusetts. They found that lawyers using part-time programs often feel stigmatized and that many full-time lawyers desiring more flexibility leave their firms because of the perception that part-time programs are not effective. These conclusions are particularly troubling at a time when 60 percent of all associates anticipate leaving their current firms within five years and 69 percent do not believe they have advancement opportunities or are on partnership track, according to the recent American Lawyer survey released in August, 2006.

Commitment is the key attribute in making a flextime policy a viable and workable one. Flexible hours arrangements can be successful both for a law firm as well as for the working lawyer but the commitment required is a two way street. While highly doable, both need to be committed to an equitable, fair work situation that results in timely, quality legal services to clients. Moreover, a firm needs to be committed to working with flextime attorneys so a policy can be reevaluated and revised if it turns out that in practice the policy is not working for the majority of participating attorneys. Success strategies for law firms and flextime attorneys are straightforward, well documented and in many instances, validated by research or actual law firm experiences.

For law firms, a flexible hours policy and its effective implementation should address key components:

1. Communicated Firmwide -- the policy should be in writing and its existence and the process by which it can be utilized communicated to all attorneys;

2. Open to All Attorneys -- a meaningful policy is available to both men and women attorneys including partners, of counsel and associates;

3. Compensation and Advancement -- attorneys working flexible hour arrangements are entitled to proportionate salaries, bonuses and benefits as well as promoted to partnership based on the same criteria as other attorneys, taking into account the percentage of hours worked each year;

4. Professional Development -- interesting and challenging work is key to retention of attorneys and opportunities to work on high profile cases or take advantage of leadership opportunities should be accorded equally to flextime attorneys; and,

5. Respect -- a firm should respect flextime arrangements and value these attorneys in the same manner as all others for their contributions to the firm with no inappropriate stigma attached to an alternative work arrangement including the absence of any unwarranted “face time” obligations.

For flextime attorneys, a commitment also is necessary to provide every opportunity for an alternative work arrangement to succeed and be viewed as a success by your law firm:

1. Good Legal Work -- all attorneys, including flextime ones, need to produce high quality work product meeting client demands to be someone a firm values and wants to retain;

2. Be Flexible -- flextime and full-time attorneys may be called upon to address critical client concerns at any given time or day and therefore flextime attorneys must be open to managing the unexpected, whether they are in or out of the office and/or have meaningful arrangements in place to handle such client situations;

3. Firm Contributions -- attorneys seeking to balance their professional and personal lives often consider eliminating or greatly reducing their contributions to a firm but to the contrary, should take every opportunity that works for them to participate in firm governance including new attorney recruiting efforts;

4. Professional Development -- a meaningful career in law requires something more than billing hours including a commitment to non-billable, pro bono and community service—flextime attorneys should conduct this work in a proportionate manner to their reduced schedule keeping in mind personal interests and their firm’s expectations; and,

5. Support -- flextime attorneys need to develop a support system in the office and at home that allows them to manage the unexpected—this should include human resources (other attorneys, spouses, partners, caregivers) as well as appropriate technology (Blackberry, laptop, fax machines, etc.).

In addition to the above recommendations, many resources exist offering insight and practical advice to firms and attorneys about alternative work arrangements. Such resources provide further guidance on the business case for alternative work arrangements, how to analyze a program’s effectiveness and specific tips on implementation. Model policies also are available.

Flexible work arrangements soon will be commonplace in law firms seeking to recruit and to retain top legal talent. Given that replacing each attorney who leaves is estimated to cost between $200,000 to $500,000, such arrangements are a cost effective option. A new emerging trend, individual selection of a billable hours commitment, offers another opportunity for a more balanced life approach to the practice of law. Under this scenario, attorneys make the decision to work more or less and are paid accordingly. For example, a new attorney can commit to billing 1,800 hours for less pay or 2,000 hours for an increased annual salary. Typically, other benefits available to attorneys including bonus consideration and partnership track remain unchanged.

Moving forward, law firms can distinguish themselves in the legal marketplace by supporting and promoting successful, meaningful flextime arrangements for their attorneys. More important, all attorneys will benefit from a changing work environment that provides an opportunity for every attorney to succeed in a manner that works best for them.

1. E. Lynn Grayson is a Partner at Jenner & Block and Co-Chair of its Women’s Forum.

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