Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 8, September 2000

Issue 8, September 2000

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

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 8
The Pain and the Promise of Part-Time Work in Law Firms


ARTICLE SUMMARY: This issue contains excerpts from "The Pain and the Promise of Part-Time Work in Law Firms," a speech Ellen delivered on September 27, 2000 at an event entitled "Part-Time Work at D.C. Law Firms: The Promise and the Pain." The presentation was sponsored by the Project for Attorney Retention, an initiative of the Gender, Work and Family Project of American University Washington School of Law, the Women's Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and The Law Practice Management Section o the District of Columbia Bar Association.

You can learn more about the Project for Attorney Retention by visiting their web site at



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor

Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


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

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 women 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' predominantly male 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 not only 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 work weeks 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 women attorneys, and sometimes men, 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.

Today I'm going to share some of the stories I hear as a professional coach. Though you won't be able to recognize their identities, I hope you will hear some of your own stories in theirs.

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's 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 since she'd returned to work after her 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.

Recently I spoke with a seventh-year associate in a firm of around 800 lawyers located in a large metropolitan area in the Northeast. The mother of two young children, she'd made a valiant attempt to be successful in her career while struggling to be involved in their lives.

There seemed to be little doubt that she would make partner. But she had reached the end of her rope just as she was about to grasp the golden ring. She'd been working a reduced-hour schedule for several years. Reduced hours meant she could leave in time to meet her children when they came home from school.

But in order to get her work done, she had to go back to work after the children went to sleep. So for months she'd been working from 9:00 PM until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, and then trying to be emotionally available to her children as she got them off to school. Often even after going to bed, she lay awake worrying about all the unfinished work.

But her exhaustion was far less a problem for her than her isolation at her firm. She felt like a pariah or a disabled person. Although her firm allowed part-time schedules, she felt they were regarded as a special accommodation to the family-challenged; for people ostensibly not tough enough to do everything. She felt completely marginalized.

"I can't talk to anyone," she confided to me. "How can I go into work on Monday morning and say to the people in my practice group who bill 3000 hours and worked straight through the weekend, that I spent my weekend taking my children to an amusement park?"

My experience has taught me that this woman is not alone. Those of you facing these kinds of challenges may not realize that you are in excellent company. From my perspective, this isolation stems from the norms of law firm culture. In general, lawyers learn that they are expected to appear confident, strong and unemotional. Many women lawyers are perennially concerned about revealing any vulnerability, for fear of being criticized as "over-emotional" or "not tough enough."

So, women 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 women 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 women 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 heard 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 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. The 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 women 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 women lawyers who have had positive experiences working part time all have some things in common:

- Their firms view part-time policies as 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 women 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

- 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 women work for firms that are
willing to be flexible: if a shortened work day
doesn't work, then they try an abbreviated work
week. 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 child
care 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 women 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 though 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-hours 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 Thomas Calvert. 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 Thomas Calvert 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.

Both PAR and Lawyers Life Coach would like to hear about your experiences working part-time in a law firm. You can fill out PAR's survey at their web site: and send email to me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
Phone: (301) 578-8686
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