Resources Articles The Pain and the Promise of Part-Time Work in Law Firms

The Pain and the Promise of Part-Time Work in Law Firms

Nebraska Lawyer
Pages 21-23
December 2000

Trying to be a successful attorney AND to have a life is a formidable task. In fact, I’ve recently heard that the International Olympic Committee is planning on including a new event in the upcoming Winter Olympics: The Billable Hours Event.

We all know that the demographics of the work force in general, and of law firms in particular, have changed dramatically. Many of the most talented associates in today’s big firms are young attorneys who are either already parents or plan to become parents during the years they are working toward making partner. These attorneys face challenges that are different from those faced by their firms’ senior partners. Many of these partners were able to give their heart and soul to their work because they had wives at home tending to their families. As a working mother, I certainly wish I had a “wife” to do this.

These days, it’s both men and women lawyers who must manage this balancing act. Increasing numbers of young male attorneys have wives with careers, and so these men must find ways of integrating active child-care responsibilities into their professional lives. Some younger men who are attorneys are not just responding to external pressures - they simply want to be more involved in the day-to-day of their children’s lives. And with current billable hour requirements, working 80-hour workweeks simply does not allow for this.

The managing partners of many law firms have tried to be responsive to the needs of these young attorneys. A host of firms now have part-time policies and are doing their best to make these policies effective. As you know, attorney attrition is a significant problem for many firms and the Project for Attorney Retention is dedicated to helping firms develop effective reduced-hour policies so that D.C. firms can retain the gifted attorneys they’ve invested in so heavily.

Often, when we discuss attorney retention and part- time policies, we talk about them abstractly. We cite statistics or talk about issues of business bottom lines or of gender and politics. But, at least to my way of thinking, the most powerful way to see the inextricable link between time and attorney retention is to examine the lives of attorneys working part time. In other words, in order to retain the best and the brightest, the legal profession needs to focus on the issue of how lawyers - faced with today’s billable hour requirements - manage their time.

I am a business coach and a psychologist, not an attorney. I spend the bulk of my hours on the phone - coaching attorneys who probably won’t make the Olympic team. Instead, they are trying to be excellent lawyers, good parents, and to have a personal life, and seeking my help as a coach to accomplish this.

Almost every attorney with whom I speak is calling because of the impact of current billable-hour demands on their lives. And many of them are talking about leaving their firms; some even talk about leaving law altogether.

A number of months ago I spoke with a fourth-year associate from a west-coast city, working in a firm of about 80 attorneys. She was the mother of a nine- month old baby and the wife of an accountant who’d recently been made partner in his firm. Since both she and her husband agreed he had a very heavy workload, there was no question as to which of them would assume primary childcare responsibility.

The problem was that following her return to work after maternity leave, she was feeling increased pressure from the partners in her firm to take on more work. In an effort to be helpful, one of the partners had asked her if she’d like to reduce her hours. But the firm had no explicit partnership track for part-time lawyers. This young woman was no less committed to her career as a lawyer than was her husband to his as an accountant. She was afraid that reducing her hours would permanently eliminate any chance she had of becoming partner.

How could I tell her that she had nothing to worry about? After all, although her firm was willing to grant her permission to reduce her time, there was no precedent for this. She felt absolutely trapped - for even when she worked full time, she was not able to meet the firm’s expectations. But reducing her hours - so she could spend more time with her baby - meant venturing out onto a slippery slope - one she was unsure her career would survive.

This feeling - that no matter what you do you lose - is one I hear expressed over and over again. Even when women work in firms with explicit part-time tracks, the women who choose them often suffer.

Lawyers trying to make part-time schedules work in large firms tend to be quite circumspect about any difficulties they experience. But this silence allows you to feel like the painful parts of your part-time experience are a personal problem - YOUR problem.

“I don’t see anyone else getting as upset as I feel,” is a comment I’ve heard from many women attorneys. If only you were tough enough, you tell yourselves, then you could make it work.

Again and again I hear women lawyers blame themselves for not being tough enough and worried about being judged this way at their firms.

See if this sounds familiar: You’re working part time but you already have more work than you can handle.

It’s the end of the day and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to make tomorrow’s deadline while attending back-to-school night tonight. That’s when a partner knocks on your door and asks if you can do just one more thing before you leave. And of course, you say “yes.”

For many lawyers, reducing their hours or saying “no” to just one more project constitutes a confession of personal inadequacy.

When you blame yourself, it’s an easy next step to feeling guilty. I speak to a lot of attorneys who are plagued by guilt about the work left for their colleagues and who wait for expressions of resentment and criticism. Many part-time policies are intended to accommodate the needs of lawyers with families, but inadvertently seem to create divisions.

Have you ever tried to walk out of a meeting of your practice group because according to the clock it was time for you to leave? The looks of shock or disapproval or disappointment are hard to bear. Who wants to feel like it’s her fault that her full-time colleagues are left with even more work because she’s going home to care for her family?

If this is your experience, I want to urge you to do something new today. Tell just one other person how you are feeling. Tell her about the pressure you’re under, or the challenges you’re facing, or about a colleague you know who is leaving your firm because she wants to have a life and isn’t interested in getting on the Billable Hours Olympic team. Right now you have the power to reduce your isolation.

There’s one more thing you can do that will make a huge difference in your life, and that is to not wait before doing everything possible to try to negotiate a flexible schedule that will really work for you.

When I’m not coaching lawyers to do just this, I’m counseling couples seeking marital therapy. If you look at the research on marriage and marriage therapy, you’ll find that most couples don’t come in for help until about six years after the problems begin.

Over the course of six years, commitment erodes. People move from disappointment to anger to detachment, and by the time they come for help, they’re really looking for a way out.

I have noticed a similar time course among attorneys in their relationships with their firms. They begin with enthusiasm and commitment. Talk to a young woman associate and you’ll hear how thrilled she is to have been hired by her firm, how proud she is to be associated with such brilliant lawyers, how determined she is to do her absolute best.

And when the firm responds by communicating that they value her, this union flourishes.

But many lawyers feel that their firms do not respect or support the reality of their dual commitments to firm and family. If I coach such a lawyer early in her career, we usually can develop strategies that work, at least well enough. But the attorneys who contact me after a few years of part-time work without institutional support are no longer interested in my suggestions about how they can make this relationship work. They want out.

I’ve tried to put a face on the pain of being a part-time lawyer. Now I’d like to talk about the promise. In my practice as a professional coach to lawyers, I’m always asking people to tell me about their successes, about the strategies that have worked for them.

The lawyers who have had positive experiences working part time all have some things in common:

  • Their firms view part-time policies has beneficial to the organization as well as the lawyer and not just as a concession to the personal needs of one or two attorneys.
  • They have a part-time coordinator or a supervisor or an alliance with a partner who champions their cause and supports their efforts to set boundaries around their hours and their workload.
  • They feel valued and not stigmatized.
  • These lawyers also understand the bottom-line concerns of their managing partners and communicate their investment in finding win-win solutions.
  • They are good at promoting themselves within their firms so that the value of retaining them is always obvious.
  • They have worked out arrangements with their firms so that some of the hours they work are not billable hours. Instead, they can continue to attend meetings or participate in committees or in some way remain integrated in the life of the firm.
  • In addition, these lawyers work for firms that are willing to be flexible: if a shortened workday doesn’t work, then they try an abbreviated workweek. What counts is that the firm and the lawyer work together to find what works for both.
  • These lawyers use electronic communication to its maximum effectiveness.
  • Finally, they have sufficient quality childcare to allow them to be flexible and responsive to client needs.

Recently, a woman attorney I’ve known for many years was made partner in her firm after eight years as an associate. As the mother of three, she’d always worked three days a week. When I called to congratulate her, she sounded giddy. She’d never expected to be made partner. She’d assumed that reducing to part-time automatically excluded her and was stunned and delighted when the partners presented her with the good news.

I’d had the privilege of working on a case with one of the partners, so I called to congratulate him as well. He said, “She’s an excellent attorney and she works very hard. She deserves this and our firm wants lawyers like her.”

This is the promise of part time. Unfortunately, right now it’s usually up to each lawyer to make it work on her own. Institutional changes would certainly help smooth the way, ease the struggle, and allow attorneys to find more time to do the work they came to their firms to do. The Project for Attorney Retention will offer these institutional solutions.

The PAR Project seeks to improve recruiting and retention of talented attorneys through the use of work schedules that allow attorneys to better balance the competing demands of their work and their lives outside the office. The Project aims to develop recommendations for reduced- hour schedules that are professionally rewarding and are not punitive “mommy tracks.” PAR advocates the development of schedules that allow proportional pay for proportional work with proportional opportunities for advancement.


The Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) is directed by Joan Williams and Cynthia Calvert Thomas. Joan Williams is the Director of the Gender, Work and Family Project at the American University Law School, where she is Professor of Law. She is the author of “Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What To Do About It” (Oxford University Press, 1999). Cynthia Calvert Thomas has worked full-time, part-time and flex-time for a D.C. law firm and recently opened her own practice concentrating in employment law counseling.


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