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I grew up the child of teachers. Besides learning the obvious lack-of-privacy lessons (“Does your father know you left the house in that outfit?” my high school history teacher once muttered to me), I also internalized the idea that in the working world, people get home every day at 4 p.m. and have summers off. To this day, it feels to me as if spending a beautiful summer afternoon sitting in an air-conditioned office goes against the natural order. I’m getting a sense that more and more people are on the same page, or a nearby one. Don’t we all want more time away from work? And yet at the same time, the office seems to be increasing its demands on our hours. One of the stickiest elements of the traditional working world is the often intractable and sometimes irrational insistence that people put in plenty of face time. The problem is especially acute in law firms — places where associates actually worry about taking a 10-minute bathroom break. (Is it billable?) It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see a link between attrition and the legal world’s obsession with the clock. While few would say that the ultimate goal of a professional life is to have free summer afternoons (sorry, Henry James), more people are talking about ways to cut down on the time they spend at work. BRING ON THE PRESS RELEASES But are the law firms listening? They have done a brilliant job of creating initiatives with fancy-sounding names. More than one firm boasts that it offers flexible schedules, sabbatical time, varieties of telecommuting. Press releases tout all these wonderful programs. But try to find a lawyer who’s made partner and worked a truly part-time schedule: It’s about as rare as getting a seat on Metro at rush hour. Boston lawyer Lauren Stiller Rikleen is in favor of initiatives that help lawyers balance their time, but she’s realistic about the difficulties. In her book, Ending the Gauntlet: Removing Barriers to Women’s Success in the Law, Rikleen points out that lawyers who negotiate their own part-time deal often lose out. For instance, one young partner told how she had agreed to take a 25 percent pay cut so that she could work 75 percent of the time. The idea was that she would leave every day at 4 p.m. But she never managed to get out that early. She said, “I was at that time still fairly junior and so people liked having me in the office every day.” In a chapter titled, “Triumph Over Tyranny: The Road Away from Billable Hours,” Rikleen quotes one former partner recalling life in her firm: “I think a whole lot of us would have given up the income. If you could have figured out how to trade the hours for a [lower] salary, people would do it.” While that lawyer found a solution — she went into government work — not everyone, obviously, can take that route. An even more radical comment came from a lawyer who dared to suggest to a senior partner that when a client calls on a Friday afternoon with a request for some work, maybe the lawyer could find out just how urgent that work is. Does it really need to be wrapped up by Monday morning? Is it truly worth ruining the weekend over? These would be refreshingly honest questions. Maybe it stretches the imagination too far to think that a lawyer might tell the client that, no, he’s not free this weekend, what with the in-laws in town and Joe Jr.’s graduation. But couldn’t he tell the client that he’ll be charging premium rates, the same way the plumber does when the toilet inevitably breaks on a Saturday? (Of course, plumbers know their market. Clients might tell the law firm just where they can go with this idea of “Saturday rates.” And, more importantly, they can just go down the street to the next firm that wouldn’t dare try to take such a stand.) THE FIX FROM WITHIN Instead of seeking a fix inside law firms, another author suggests that the fix should come from the individual. Maybe, says New York writer Marci Alboher, lawyers just need to expand their own sense of possibility. They can still practice law, but they can also find real joy in preaching to a flock of Baptists or making documentaries. As Alboher, who started her career as a lawyer, describes her feeling: “I was not a passionate lawyer. I became a lawyer because it was the practical path. But I always had the fantasy of being a writer.” Alboher fulfilled her fantasy with One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success, a new book that argues the wisdom of one person embracing many jobs and identities. It’s the “slash effect” — in which people blend different professions, hobbies, and activities to help them live a happier life. Some people find that creative variety by dividing up their time at work — between paying clients and pro bono projects and management tasks. But in researching her book, Alboher was struck by how many lawyers told her they were looking for a bigger change. In one networking talk she gave to a Kansas firm, a number of lawyers came up to tell her that while they had hit many career milestones, they just weren’t feeling engaged by the work any more. One lawyer put the problem in a nutshell: “I could be stimulated by this if I took it down to 30 hours a week.” Some are already doing just that. Alboher profiles one lawyer who works as a part-time hourly employee in the New York office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges while also directing and acting in theater companies. His hours at the firm depend on what else is going on in his life. He’s doing what he loves, he has saved enough money to buy a house, and the firm is very happy with his work. (Or so he reports, although he refuses to be named in the book. The firm may be loathe to have all its attorneys doing document review by day and declaiming Hamlet at night.) One Person/Multiple Careers is also implicitly about women trying to figure out ways to spend enough time with their kids without feeling too much of a kinship with Dumbo — and enough time in a career without feeling that their toddlers will cry for the nanny when they skin their knees. Even though Alboher says that her concept is meant for more than just parents, lawyer/mommy may be the first big slash. Those who can’t possibly sit through another deposition may take heart from some of Alboher’s more colorful anecdotes: a rabbi-turned-standup comic, a surgeon-turned-TV correspondent, a Pilates instructor/art consultant/author. Some of these people have moved on from their first professions, while others have done the slash thing. But the biggest inspiration comes from Alboher’s own story. After law school, Alboher was hired to work in the legal department at the Hong Kong office of Reader’s Digest. She decided that if she was going to be living in Asia, she wanted time to write and to travel. So she negotiated a three-day-a-week schedule with the company. She brags: “I was the first lawyer in the company to successfully negotiate a part-time schedule.” She says that her U.S.-based boss told her that as long as she got her work done and made herself available in the middle of the night for the occasional phone calls from other time zones, she was welcome to try it out. That triumph spurred Alboher to the next request. Back in New York, she announced to the company that she was planning to leave the law. But in the meantime, she wanted to work a three-day schedule once more, while she made the transition. No problem, the company said. “If you’re good enough, you’d be surprised what you can negotiate,” she says. Next Alboher turned to freelance journalism. To accomplish that, she formed a “goals group” that “coached each other through our reinvention,” she says. Today she writes a careers column for The New York Times online and buzzes all over the country giving talks that are posted on YouTube. By refusing to settle for a daily grind, she has built a career tailored to her own creativity and verve. And that brings us back to some essential questions. Are our jobs worth the time away from people and other things we love, and the sense that life is slipping by? J. Alfred Prufrock lamented, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” We all need to ask ourselves if we’re measuring out our years in billable hours while it’s spring and the azaleas are so vividly pink.
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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