M. Catherine Richardson says she has a message for young associates she finds working at her firm's office on Saturdays.
Their presence at their desks means they are not spending free time with their families. It is time young attorneys may think they can spare but which they really cannot, as her own life proved, she said.
"My dad died when I was 15 years old," Richardson said. "If my mother had not put her foot down that, 'Weekends are for your family,' we wouldn't have known my dad at all."
Richardson said the cherished time she did get with her father, George Richardson, a one-time city of Syracuse corporation counsel, informed her work as chairwoman of the New York State Bar Association's Special Committee on Balanced Lives in the Law.
The committee's report, adopted unanimously by the Bar's House of Delegates on Saturday, concluded that being an attorney is an ever-more demanding profession in which practitioners are finding less time for families or for the citizenship activities that have been the traditional obligation of lawyers.
The committee worked for nearly three years on the report, which was based in part on nine invitation-only forums around the state.
The attorneys' responses, regardless of the number of years in practice, size of firm or practice setting, were consistent on one central point: "They all were having a very difficult time achieving a balanced life in the law," the study said.
Most attorneys told the committee they did not understand how demanding their jobs would be before entering the profession nor the stresses it would place on other aspects of their lives.
One contributing factor is technology. E-mail, BlackBerrys, cell phones and other devices make it possible for lawyers to be always on call to their firms and clients, Richardson said.
"The culture that we have created to accommodate our clients -- 24/7, 365, instant response, letting technology rule, the billable hour and a little bit, maybe, of greed -- has added up to the enemy is us," Richardson told the House of Delegates.
Richardson, of Bond, Shoeneck & King in Syracuse, said attorneys overwhelmingly told the committee that they like practicing law and would enter the profession if they had it to do over again. But they also said they wished at certain times in their careers that they had had flexible work schedules or reduced hours available to them.
The committee recommended firms allow reduced hours or flex-time, which means attorneys work the usual number of hours in a week but have discretion to take time off during the day.
Richardson said the biggest surprise for her was how many firms allow flexible work schedules, on paper.
"There were lots of written flexible schedule policies," she said. "But then we asked, 'How many people use them?' And the answer was slim and none."
The committee also recommended that law schools do a better job of describing to students what to expect when they become attorneys, that bar associations offer programs on time management and stress management, and that law firms establish "boundaries" about when attorneys should be contacted for work.
Committee member Joey Silberfein, professional development manager at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said it makes financial sense for firms to yield on work schedule flexibility if it will promote the retention of valued associates. It is estimated that losing an associate with two to five years' experience can cost a firm from $200,000 to $500,000 in training costs, headhunter fees and other expenses, Silberfein said.
Law school students are becoming more demanding in asking what firms expect from associates in terms of work and billable hours, according to Silberfein. She cited the Building a Better Legal Profession initiative at Stanford Law School as an example of law students identifying firms where they can have both a career and a rewarding personal and family life.
The committee began its study at the request of former State Bar President Kenneth G. Standard in 2005. Standard said Tuesday that the Stanford Law initiative is "very healthy and helpful" for the profession. Having better informed young lawyers will mean those who value a more balanced life will find firms willing to accommodate them while those seeking an "all-consuming" professional life will gravitate to those firms.
Standard, of Epstein Becker & Green, said a "cultural adjustment" must take place if balance is to be restored to lawyers' lives.
"The adjustments will have to come from the firms and the clients," he said. "I think the impetus will come from the younger lawyers. We're starting to see that."
Standard said communication "gadgets" have been a significant stress-enhancer.
"While they facilitate communications and make it so you can get in touch with people very easily, it is a two-edged sword," he said. "The reverse is that our clients know they can reach us at any time and expect us to respond very quickly."
Another member of the committee, James W. Lytle of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Albany, said he practically personifies the issues raised in the report.
Lytle said he was active early on with the committee, helping to organize an Albany forum. But more recently, he said, he was less involved because of work.
"I honestly did not have time to devote to it," he said.
Richardson, who is also a former president of the State Bar, said the committee wants to continue studying the balance issue, including what solo practitioners can do with little or no support staff and what the courts can do to make their schedules more accommodating for attorneys.
Also Saturday, the House of Delegates unanimously approved a resolution creating the Section on Dispute Resolution, the State Bar's 24th section.
Converting the Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution to a section recognizes the growing importance of dispute resolution, chiefly mediation and arbitration, in resolving civil matters, said committee Chairman James C. Moore.
"The litigation process, which is very well intended and very desirous of being fair to everyone, has become an expensive way of resolving disputes and you can't sustain that level of expense in many cases," said Moore, of Harter Secrest & Emery in Rochester.
Moore, also a former State Bar president, said bar groups in other states have granted section status to alternative dispute resolution. The American Bar Association's section has increased to 17,000 members from 6,000 members in the last 15 years, he said.
Simeon Baum of Resolve Mediation Services in Manhattan will be the first chairman of the new section.
The House of Delegates declined to allow nonattorneys to join the new section as dues-paying, nonvoting "associates."
Moore had argued for their inclusion, saying some mediators and arbiters are nonlawyers "whose input we should receive."
He agreed to modify the resolution establishing the new section, however, when it was pointed out that the bylaws of the State Bar prohibit nonlawyers from being members of the group or its sections.