Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” comment became the iconic meme of the 2012 election. The binder buzz from the cloud was so immediate that it drowned out the finale of Romney’s response to how he would address gender pay inequality: He understood women’s needs for flexible schedules. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney ensured that his chief of staff could be home to have dinner on the table. And he would create an economy and demand for workers so strong that employers would be “anxious” to have even women as employees.

Romney’s response channeled an antiquated view of law firm practice management: flexible schedules are a complication and sacrifice that business must endure on behalf of women. This 9-to-5, pre-wired, single-employer mode of thinking binds lawyers of all genders and the economics of law.

Flexible Work is Not Just a Women’s Issue

It’s a modern economic issue, and this is why this issue is so important to all lawyers, regardless of gender. In the 1990s, other industries entered the age of the consultant, contractor and otherwise flexible worker. This change was not for 1950s nostalgia, but for cold, hard business reasons that a private equity veteran understands well. Professionals began adapting to their mercenary status, developing their skills and networks to make themselves portable and marketable. The current workforce reflects these realities. An estimated one-third of Americans are now in some type of freelance career, according to The Guardian’s “How America Became a Nation of Freelancers.”

The current generation of young professionals grew up amidst this emerging economy. Previously stable companies and parents’ jobs and pensions unceremoniously evaporated amidst corporate reorganizations and bankruptcy — often after decades of devotion. Today, most young professionals expect to be economic casualties of reorganizations, mergers, lay-offs, bad quarters or bankruptcy. I see my peers outside of the legal industry (and even recently within) leveraging flexible schedules and jobs to pursue complimentary career interests from side ventures to involvement on boards and within organizations that develop their networks for current and future roles.

Diversifying, hedging risk and developing a network are now a standard part of a strong professional portfolio. Flexible work arrangements are not “mothers’ hours,” but career and economic necessities. This is likely a factor in why, according to the last government survey on flexible schedules by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 41.8 percent of men and 26.2 percent of women in full-time professional and related occupations had flexible schedules.

The Legal Elite are Adopting a Flexible Business Model That Will Trickle Down

Law firms currently have little leverage to resist greater economic trends amidst shrinking outside counsel budgets, expanding in-house departments and low-cost alternatives. (See Altman Weil’s “Chief Legal Officer Survey” at http://bit.ly/TKxpfB.) In response, elite firms with sophisticated business and practice management departments have begun to redesign their business models.

In conference rooms in the clouds of Manhattan, formidable firms detail how flexible work arrangements have expanded throughout their firms to core and specialized legal work. While two-to-four years ago they never imagined that their firms would do this, contract attorneys are increasingly an integral part of their business models and practices.

We discuss the benefits of this model to their firms and attorneys. Many pedigreed attorneys prefer not to be associates. The presence of this model raises awareness that the legal career trajectory is changing and attorneys must develop their skills, networks and careers now. Well-rounded attorneys pursuing entrepreneurial and artistic endeavors in tandem with law bring unique perspectives and value to their careers and the industry.

But, of course, we are all well aware of the limits and realities of the new economy. There is no manual to follow for success or comforting illusions of security. And BigLaw management, just like those who idealize a 1950s “American Dream,” are still often wistful for the security, status and rewards that a certain segment of their world was all but entitled to once upon a time.

As are many associates at elite firms, still proud of their place in the legal caste system. They have appropriated the rigid culture of rank and status that law schools and firms helped to foster. BigLaw recruiters and professional development staff now note a primary challenge in law firm evolution: attorneys of all genders see any alternative to the partner track — even as they acknowledge the diminishing viability, stability and financial rewards — as an inferior or “mommy” track.

And this is where my fellow attorneys and I must accept that our legal careers are unlikely to look as we imagined when completing our law school applications — even if a primary reason was because law seemed a safe haven from a rapidly changing economy. Indeed, for many attorneys the legal profession seemed a neatly ordered and tabbed career path, securely fastened between the steel rings of law school, associate and partner. Many aspiring lawyers never entertained the idea that this binder would become worn, the rings broken and misaligned.

But as the rings loosen, we have the opportunity to slip out. It’s not easy. Surely, many of us have been worn and slightly crumpled in the process. But a little wear and tear is better than fighting our way out from under the heavy weight of this binder once it is finally tossed to the bottom of the recycling bin.

Julia Claire Shapiro co-founded Hire an Esquire, the first cloud-based legal staffing service to help law firms and legal departments build and manage a flexible workforce. She also acts as a legal service industry research analyst and subject matter expert for a national consulting firm and has taught legal research and writing as an adjunct at Temple University Beasley School of Law’s International LLM Program.