Resources Articles Making the Business Case for Balanced Hours

Making the Business Case for Balanced Hours

F.A.W.L. Journal
(A Publication of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers)
Winter 2001

The need for businesses to enable employees to balance their work and personal lives has not changed simply because the economy has slowed. If anything, the events of September 11 have been a reminder of the preciousness of our time with loved ones and the costs of squandering it.

Despite changes in the economy, certain realities remain:

  • Women now constitute almost 30 percent of the American Bar and about 50 percent of law school entering classes.
  • Most women attorneys will become mothers during their careers.
  • Current billable hours requirements are incompatible with normal family life and of questionable validity as measures of commitment or success.
  • Research consistently indicates that work/life balance is associated with employee satisfaction, productivity and retention - for both women and men.
  • There has been a profound values shift with regard to work/life balance. Men, especially those in dual career marriages, want to participate actively in their families’ lives. This cultural change appears to be quite stable.
  • There are insufficient numbers of men in the new labor pool to meet the demand for new lawyers - and many of these men will choose employers based on the same criterion driving women: the availability of flexible schedules to achieve work/life balance. This is NOT just a “women’s issue.”
  • It generally costs a law firm 150 percent of a lawyer’s annual salary to recruit and train a replacement.
  • The corporate world has successfully developed effective work/life balance initiatives to retain a diverse workforce. These same corporations will seek comparable diversity in choosing legal representation.
  • If legal employers want to retain their most talented attorneys they will have to adopt effective balanced hour policies. Even in the current economic slowdown, a gifted woman attorney will find employment options that allow her the flexibility to be both lawyer and mother.


The following is a strategy for establishing your value as an attorney to your firm or organization. It includes tactics for demonstrating the profitability of a balanced hours program that offers equal opportunities for advancement to women with family responsibilities as well as attorneys free of these commitments.


You’re going to need to develop a valued expertise and to campaign on your own behalf. To do this effectively, you need to have a clear sense of the kind of work you love to do and the kind of life you want to be living. Look for a work setting with values compatible to your own. Without a vision, it’s easy for external demands to define your focus and control your time.


Choose a practice area to which you can become committed. Doing work you love enables you to sustain interest and focus - the essential ingredients for success. Select a specialty that is manageable within the context of your other priorities as well as marketable.


Share your knowledge with lawyers in your organization. Have work successes published in your newsletter. Send clippings to colleagues to demonstrate you’re on top of things. Demonstrate your value to the organization with a record of effective performance and be sure others know what you’ve accomplished.


Go after the work you want; make a plan to develop and strengthen skills; offer to contribute to challenging projects; seek opportunities to meet people both within and outside your firm with whom you might be able to develop a mutually beneficial relationship.


Work on your written and verbal communication. Notice how the people you admire speak in meetings, to clients, superiors, and subordinates. Request feedback from people you trust about how effectively you come across. You want to become your own best advocate.


Free agents can also be good team players. Volunteer for leadership roles on projects and in carefully selected committees. Be a good listener. Attend to group dynamics. Facilitate cooperation.


Remember that every time you talk to people about what they do and about your own work, you have an opportunity to market your legal expertise. Share knowledge by writing articles or speaking to your target market. If your firm doesn’t teach marketing skills, acquire them through other forms of training and coaching.


Even without a formal mentoring program, you can take the initiative to develop your own personal advisory board. Cultivate relationships with people you admire, from whom you can learn and who want to play a role in facilitating your career development. Develop an alliance with a senior attorney in a position of influence who can be your advocate when you make your balanced hours proposal.


Examine model balanced hours policies and agreements in drafting your own. The Project for Attorney Retention (, The Boston Bar Association (, and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession ( offer excellent models and suggestions.

Contact other attorneys, within and outside of your organization, who have negotiated balanced hours schedules. If your firm or organization has a written policy, be sure to follow the parameters while tailoring it to your specific needs.


It’s important to find a schedule that fits with your own needs as well as those of your organization. Make sure your priorities are explicit so your firm knows what it can realistically expect of you.


The Project for Attorney Retention has specified the criteria for effective balanced hours policies ( Proportional hours for proportional pay with proportional advancement should be built into the plan. There is no reason for you to be removed from partnership track - you’ll be developing your skills and paying your dues - even if you’re doing it at a bit slower pace.


Remember it will cost your firm at least 150 percent of your salary to recruit someone to replace you. A new recruit will need to get up to speed on your projects. Al the relationships you’ve cultivated with clients will be lost. Be subtle in your delivery of this message - but keep it in mind.

Decide if you want fewer clients or fewer projects. More important, decide which work you want to continue to do. Clearly communicate your commitment to continue on these projects and clarify how you plan to sustain involvement.

You’ll need to stay connected, so include your technology needs in your proposal. This also communicates what you’ll continue to contribute if you’re retained.

The best business case is in the product. Set realistic goals and work efficiently. Employees who change to balanced hours schedules often become more productive. It’s imperative that your productivity be visible. Gender stereotypes lead people to underestimate the competence and commitment of women. Provide the evidence to dispel the assumptions.


Be prepared to deal with backlash from attorneys who have not reduced their hours. In a perfect world, backlash would be decreased by a policy that is available to everyone and by proactive management decisions to staff cases appropriately to avoid overburdening attorneys on standard hours schedules with work you used to do.

If you encounter backlash, candid discussions may ease tensions. Remind colleagues that you are getting paid less than they are and, if applicable, will advance more slowly to partnership. Severe backlash needs the intervention of management, however.


If you’re going to advance, you’ll need opportunities to stay in the loop, to participate on committees, for client development and pro bono work. Schedule these activities into your balanced hours proposal.


Your needs and those of your organization change over time. Update your agreement as needed, including plans to transition back to standard hours, if you decide to do that.


Unfortunately, until balanced hours policies receive consistent support from management, some partners will continue to ignore your schedule limits. Often, attorneys on balanced hours schedules find themselves working 100 percent hours for 60-80 percent pay.

Situations will surely arise requiring you to work more hours than dictated by your schedule. Compensate for this by reducing work time in subsequent days or weeks.

If a partner consistently refuses to respect the limits of your schedule, be bold in brining this to the attention of management. Remember - balanced hours policies are not accommodations for the work-challenged. They should be mutually beneficial arrangements between lawyers and their managers. You gain flexibility and your firm retains your talent and increases its bottom line.


You’re a professional, so you know you’ll be available to clients when true emergencies arise. Make sure colleagues and staff know under what circumstances you can be contacted in your “off” hours.

Help the skeptics in your organization see that it matters little to clients whether you’re speaking to them from your office, a playground, a nursing home or the courthouse. Remember - no attorney is really available 24/7. What happens when an attorney is arguing a motion or taking a deposition?

Have plans for emergency child care if you need to deal with a client emergency and arrange back-up coverage for clients so they’ll feel important and well-served.

If work is assigned to the first person seen, you’ll need to make partners aware of you even when you’re not there. As a coach who communicates with clients primarily via telephone and e-mail, I know how much you can accomplish with these forms of connection.


Actively and repeatedly request good work and complain if you don’t get it. Denying you the opportunity to succeed by giving you meaningless assignments or refusing to work with you is discriminatory. Don’t be afraid to make a fuss if this happens.

If your organization is unresponsive to your genuine efforts to work out mutually beneficial arrangements and to continue to contribute valuable work while developing professionally, then this is a culture with values incongruent with your own.

Why stay in an organization that doesn’t value equal opportunity, family care, and having a life?

Find a better place to work and let the firm pay the price of replacing you.


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