Our ongoing Hot Topic page rounds up the latest stories about efforts to improve diversity in the legal profession, plus the specific challenges and milestones of that journey.
“The advice I would give depends on where you are in your career,” said Barbara Gregoratos, a part-time partner at Heller Ehrman in San Francisco. “If you’re a junior lawyer: doing a really a good job so people like you and like your work.”
Debra Acker, a recruiter with BCG Attorney Search in Palo Alto, said that young lawyers, or lawyers at a new firm, should wait until they’ve built up a reputation before asking for something like a part-time arrangement.
“In terms of strategic advice, something I don’t like to say but is realistic: Don’t ask for it right away,” she said. “Get in there and prove yourself � make sure you have the political capital before you go down that road.”
HOW TO GET THERE
In the Bay Area, many big firms allow their lawyers to work less than 100 percent for a period of time following maternity leave. In many cases, lawyers can parlay that into a more permanent part-time arrangement.
“The expectation was that I would come back full-time,” said Heller’s Gregoratos. “But it never made sense to do that for me because I liked the flexibility it gave me.”
After giving birth to her daughter in 1996, Gregoratos, then a new partner, came back to work at 60 percent of full time and now works between 75 and 80 percent. A corporate lawyer who represents private equity funds and large investors in their real estate investments, Gregoratos said the firm doesn’t bother her about her part-time status, as long as she’s there for her clients.
“At this point in my career, the demands come from clients outside the firm, not inside the firm,” she said.
Currently, Heller’s part-time policy centers around child rearing, said Patricia Gillette, until recently a longtime partner who had been involved in crafting the policy. Lawyers automatically get a year of part time after having a child, and can continue based on individual needs. Gillette said in early October that the firm is revamping the policy to make it more inclusive for both men and women, though she declined to give details.
“We’ve done a really terrific job of having a part-time policy,” Gillette said. “But I think the revised policy will make it even better and more accessible to men and women.”
Sonnenschein’s Lacey also remained part time after giving birth to her first daughter in 1990. She said all she did was approach the firm about her plans. “My advice would be to be very open about wanting to work part time and to make the request to explain why it’s important,” said Lacey.
That approach seems to work at her firm. Recently, Peter Soares, a Sonnenschein associate, requested to be dropped to 80 percent of full time after he and his wife had their first child. (The firm’s lawyers are required to bill 1,950 hours.) The young lawyer said he was surprised how easy it was when he brought the request to longtime San Francisco office managing partner Paul Glad.
“I was completely shocked,” Soares said. “He was so nice and so supportive.”
After many sleepless months, Soares said, he was also very relieved. “We have a little more flexibility, so if I don’t get any sleep or the baby sitter doesn’t come on time, it’s not a big deal if I’m 30 minutes late to the office.”
Glad said he can’t remember turning anyone down during his tenure. Generally the firm expects part-timers to bill 80 percent, but exceptions have been made.
Besides Heller, other firms have also been refurbishing their part-time policies. Perkins Coie redid its policy last year to expand and formalize it, said Lisa Kobialka, who has headed the effort as a member of a women’s affinity group within the firm.
Now, “it’s not limited to attorneys who are caregivers, but at the same time it is focused on caregivers,” Kobialka said. And as part of the new policy, Perkins lawyers now have to come up with a business plan if they want to go part time, she said.
Going part time can come with its trade-offs when it comes to time, money and quality of work.
On the financial side, most can expect a proportionate drop in pay with a drop in billable-hour requirements.
For lawyers with kids, it’s a small price to pay for the extra time. “Frankly, when you have competing family concerns you have to balance everything out,” said Sonnenschein’s Soares. “It’s not a big deal to me, especially when it’s a temporary thing.”
But even with a more lenient schedule, you have to be flexible with your flex time, part-timers say, because clients don’t care if you’re at your daughter’s dance performance. They advise against picking set days every week to be on or off the clock, and to instead adapt to client demands.
“You have to be willing to bend, and that goes both ways,” said Marilee Allan, a Bingham McCutchen of counsel who has had a part-time arrangement with her firm for two decades.
The consequences of being overly protective of your flex time can damage your career, part-timers say. “We are in a service industry, and one of the things clients pay for is making them a priority,” said Allison Tucher, who made partner at Morrison & Foerster working 80 percent time. “If you have too many restrictions about when you can be available, you may not have as many opportunities.”
And then there’s the issue of work. It’s often said that part-timers don’t get plum assignments because partners don’t believe they’ll be there when they’re needed.
“What you’ve seen in the past � although not at Heller � is that you see part-time people getting document review and lower-level assignments,” said Gillette, who jumped from Heller to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe last week. “The key is to have someone who has responsibility for monitoring that.”
For that reason, Gillette said earlier this month, going part time has often been considered the first step out the door. “Heller, like all law firms, is struggling with how to make part time a retention strategy instead of an exit strategy.”
Almost unanimously, the lawyers interviewed for this article said that their part-time arrangement is a big reason why they’ll stay at their firms for a long time to come.
“I get calls from headhunters all the time,” Gregoratos said, “and I think to myself, �Where else could I have this arrangement?’”