The business case for effective part-time programs

Remarks at "Summit on Keeping Her in Her Place: New Challenges to the Integration of Women in the Profession," Section of Litigation, American Bar Association August 11, 2002

I believe there is a strong business case for effective, successful part-time work programs in law firms.

I start from the proposition that law firms compete in two markets: the market for talent and the market for clients. An accessible, workable part-time program, I believe, benefits a law firm in competing in both of those markets.

In the market for talent, the benefits to a law firm of a good part-time program are-or should be-clear.

Surveys have for a number of years documented the unusually high levels of career dissatisfaction among lawyers. There are a number of reasons for this, but from everything I have seen-not only in surveys, but in the scores of exit interviews I have conducted over seven years as a managing partner-the single biggest source of dissatisfaction in our profession is the inability to achieve work/life balance. And the cause of that inability is the hours lawyers are expected to work. To paraphrase James Carville, "It's the hours, stupid!"

The inability to achieve work/life balance affects men as well as women. It is not, and increasingly will not be, only a women's issue. But its impact is manifested disproportionately among women, especially among women with families. And because the age at which most women are on the partnership track in law firms so often coincides with their child-bearing and young child-rearing years, the inability to achieve work/life balance is a major cause of female attrition in law firms. It is a significant explanation for why there are not more women partners in law firms.

Any law firm that can help its lawyers achieve real work/life balance is going to have a huge competitive advantage in the market for talent. Any firm that can help its lawyers achieve work/life balance will have talented people knocking the doors down to work there, and will have much better success than the competition in retaining talented women through the partnership decision and beyond.

I also believe that a successful part-time program is an advantage to a firm in competing in the market for clients.

That proposition, though, runs headlong into the assumption of many law firm partners-and managing partners-that part-time lawyering is inconsistent with client service demands, inconsistent with the expectation of clients that their high-priced lawyers will be available 24/7.

Whenever I have heard this issue-the issue of the alleged incompatibility of part-time work with good client service-discussed among lawyers, whether at managing partner roundtables or at bar conferences or elsewhere, I am always struck by the fact that there is not a single client in the room. Not one.

I believe that the assumptions so many lawyers make about the negative impact of reduced hours on client service are uninformed and simply wrong. I would suggest that when this issue, or any client service issue, is discussed, clients be included in the dialog, and I am glad to see the client community represented here at this summit.

My own conversations with our firm's clients are uniformly at odds with the common assumption about the incompatibility of reduced hours with good client service. Some of the most passionate advocates of our firm's part-time policy are clients who are working with part-time lawyers. Do you know why? There are two reasons.

The first is that these clients have an investment in the lawyer working a reduced schedule. That lawyer knows the client's business and knows the client's legal problems. The client has a self-interest in retaining that lawyer, and often realizes that if the lawyer were not working part-time, he or she would not be working full-time, but instead would leave the firm to do something else. Smart clients know that reduced-hours schedules are an important tool in retaining people of value to them, and they are happy to help make those schedules work.

The second reason why clients are supportive of part-time lawyers is that they do, in fact, get good service from those lawyers. Part-time lawyers, in my experience, are every bit as professional as full-time lawyers. They do not somehow lose their sense of responsibility or commitment to their clients because they are not working full-time. They communicate with their clients about their schedules and they work with their clients to be sure the clients' needs are met. They are flexible when the client's needs require it. I have never had one client complain about poor service from a part-time lawyer, and I have had a number volunteer their appreciation for our part-time lawyers.

In short, talk to clients about part-time arrangements. You will find that the assumptions about their dissatisfaction with those arrangements are dead wrong.

I would like to offer a few specific suggestions for making the business case for reduced-hours programs within law firms and to dispel what I think are some of the myths about the costs of such programs.

First, try to make your business case on your law firm's facts-not on abstract arguments. In saying this, I recognize that in some firms, the most compelling facts might be in the hands of firm management and not accessible to those trying to make the case. One example is attrition statistics and exit interviews. Some firms guard their attrition statistics jealously, but if your firm won't share the data, keep track yourself. Most departures are not secret.

Second, recognize that the arguments you make need to be relevant to the times. Two years ago, the high cost of replacing a lawyer was a powerful argument for getting law firms to act to reduce associate attrition by introducing or improving reduced-hours programs. I would be very careful about making that particular argument in 2002. Many law firms today believe they have overcapacity. Attrition is something they pray for, not something they dread. They will not replace the lawyer who departs, so the replacement-cost argument will fall on deaf ears. For firms in that position, I would make a different argument: that part-time arrangements can be useful in aligning capacity with demand, and that at a time when a number of so-called full-time lawyers may in fact be working part-time at full-time compensation, part-time lawyers should be thanked, not stigmatized, for taking reduced compensation for reduced hours.

Third, try to get access to hard numbers to rebut assumptions about the costs of part-time programs. For example, I have often heard it said that part-time lawyers require the same overhead expenditures as full-time lawyers but generate less revenue than full-time lawyers, so the economics won't work. Well, what overhead expenditures are we talking about, and how much are they? The two items I hear mentioned most often are occupancy expense-rent-and malpractice insurance, neither of which is reduced for a part-time lawyer. How much money are we talking about? In 2001, according to a survey of law firm economics I saw recently, average occupancy cost per lawyer in large law firms was $41,000, and the average malpractice premium per lawyer was $4,000. If we assume a part-time lawyer working 75 percent of the hours of a full-time lawyer, that means that the part-time lawyer is incurring $10,000 in occupancy cost and $1,000 in malpractice insurance expense more than would be the case if it were possible to reduce those costs pro rata with the lawyer's reduced schedule. But what revenue is that lawyer generating, and how does this $11,000 in "excess" cost compare to that revenue? The same survey showed that average revenue per lawyer at large firms last year was $533,000. Using that figure, a lawyer working a 75 percent schedule would, on average, generate $400,000 in revenue. The $11,000 in so-called additional cost looks immaterial to me when other relevant numbers are known.

A previous speaker referred to a part-time lawyer working a 75 percent schedule who was paid only 60 percent of the compensation of a full-time lawyer, ostensibly to cover overhead costs. I believe that to make a lawyer reducing his or her hours by 25 percent take a 40 percent pay cut is unfair. I think it's punitive. And I think anyone who claims to the contrary is practicing voodoo economics.

Fourth, find an advocate in your firm's management to help you assemble the facts. And after you have persuaded your firm's management of the business case for reduced hours schedules, enlist management's help in making the case to the partners-all of them-because the success of part-time schedules in law firms ultimately depends on the support of the individual partners with whom a part-time lawyer works. If those partners suffer from the common unconscious bias that "the way for you to succeed is the way I succeeded," and if I succeeded by working killer hours then so must you, then the support of firm management will be inadequate, and your part-time policy will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Ultimately, the success of reduced-hours programs depends on employers' recognition that it is in their self-interest to have them and make them work. I believe the business case is a compelling one, if only you know the facts.

How not to dress

From the refresher workshop showing how NOT to dress for your interview (left to right-Franklyn Philip, project assistant; Dawn Duffy, summer associate; Maureen Riordan, summer intern; Rina Scates, summer associate; Madalyn Duerr, executive assistant; Jonathan Knisley, project assistant

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