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Facing high associate turnover year in and year out, high-powered law firms are starting to tackle retention from a different angle: quality of life concerns. In January 1999, New York’s Shearman & Sterling announced a major reform package designed to improve associate satisfaction and retention. One of the new key changes? A vastly expanded part-time policy: Any associate who has been at Shearman at least two years can shift to a part-time or flex-time schedule. Furthermore, associates who go part time for two years or less will matriculate along with their entering class, with no delay of their partnership vote. “We want to change the way everyone looks at part time in a first-tier firm,” Shearman executive group member David Heleniak explained to The National Law Journal. Heleniak is right — Shearman’s policies do represent a shift from the way many of its peers view part-time work. At Shearman, the rules are clear: All associates can apply for a part-time schedule, even if they don’t have specific medical or family needs. And the official word is that going part time for two years or less won’t jeopardize partnership chances. At many other firms, though, the “rules” are often unwritten and are far more murky. HEY, DO WE HAVE PART TIME? Many associates we surveyed at leading law firms had no idea whether their firms even had a real part-time policy. “Part-time work remains a somewhat elusive notion,” diplomatically remarks one associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Other Cravath insiders are more blunt. “Maternity leaves are respected. Part-time work is unheard of,” one contact tells us. Many associates at Atlanta’s King & Spalding are similarly down on part-time options. “Until this year, part-time work was not allowed,” says one insider. “Now many practice groups still do not allow it.” Another King & Spalding associate, however, remains more positive. “I have a part-time schedule to which the firm — and my group — appears to be committed and which has been working,” a new associate reports. “If the individual fits a specific need or offers some other ‘value’ to the firm, I believe that the firm is willing to enter into unique arrangements to accommodate alternative working schedules.” Even at firms with official part-time policies, many associates are fully unaware of their existence. At New York’s Cadwalader, Wickersham, & Taft, for example, few associates report any knowledge of part-time policies. “If they have programs to meet these issues, they don’t publicize them within the firm,” a contact shrugs. One knowledgeable associate tells Vault.com, however, that the firm “makes an effort to accommodate women associates who wish to create a family and maintain a part-time status. Three-day work weeks and set hours — 9 to 5 — are available.” AM I ELIGIBLE? Firms also range dramatically in their standards for determining who is eligible to go on a part-time schedule. At one end of the spectrum is Shearman & Sterling, which allows all third-year associates and above to go part time, regardless of whether they have special medical or family needs. At the other end are firms like King & Spalding, which allow “unique arrangements” on an individual basis. Other firms at the restrictive end include New York’s Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hayes, & Handler, where “part time is hard to get,” and Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis, where some women (usually the “superstars”) have to work out “special deals.” In the middle are firms such as New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton, which generally limit part-time options to attorneys with child care needs. Debevoise’s official policy states that “although child care will undoubtedly continue to be the primary reason to elect a part-time schedule, the firm recognizes that, in certain exceptional cases, a lawyer may request a part-time schedule because of other commitments.” Since firms tend to emphasize child care as the primary justification for a part-time schedule, part time has largely become a women’s issue. And this concerns many associates, both female and male. A Hale and Dorr associate, for example, reflects that since part-time schedules are “available to both women and men, but mainly used by women, there is some ghettoization.” Another Hale and Dorr contact says: “It seems clear to me that many of the firm’s policies regarding flex time and family leave are generally meant for women only. While some male lawyers have taken advantage of them, many more do not than do.” Such concerns exist even at some of the firms most progressive on part-time issues, such as D.C.’s Hogan & Hartson. “The firm is very inclusive for women, and proud of its part-time policies,” notes one contact. “The next step is for the firm and the profession to recognize that these policies are and should be just as applicable and important to men.” When work hours often exceed 80 hours per week, what exactly does it mean to be part time, anyway? At some firms, such as Boston’s ultra-prestigious Ropes & Gray, the rules are laid out. “Three days a week is considered 60 percent time, and five days a week, from 9 to 5, is 80 percent time,” one contact tells Vault.com. But associates at other firms are often more cynical. “Part time is a farce,” a Sullivan & Cromwell contact snaps. “You get 80 percent of your pay and do 90 percent of the work.” A Kirkland & Ellis associate agrees, commenting that “part time here would be full time anywhere else, and my sense is that the quality of work and respect you would receive working here part time would diminish greatly.” PARTNERSHIP PROSPECTS That Kirkland associate raises an important concern shared by virtually all our contacts: If you go part time, are you throwing the partners’ respect — and your own chances for partnership — out the window? At firms with no official part-time policies in the first place, associates are uniformly pessimistic about the prospects for part-time associates. “One cannot have children while an associate,” one Cravath attorney reports. “Part-time work will almost guarantee your removal from the partnership track.” But even at firms with part-time policies on the books, associates are far from confident. “It is more than a rumor that women who take time off for maternity leave or other personal reasons get derailed from the partnership track,” comments one Hale & Dorr associate. Others, while not exactly optimistic, are somewhat more hopeful. “I work part-time,” one Debevoise contact says. “I’ve always been treated well. I don’t know what effect this has on my partnership chances, however.” A Davis, Polk & Wardwell associate concurs, reflecting that “the firm is now very receptive to hiring women and to part-time schedules,” but that the question remains as to “whether some of the women associates coming up through the ranks will make partner. Let’s hope so.” Meanwhile, in addition to Shearman & Sterling, one firm that stands out for its openness to part-time work in partnership decisions is San Francisco’s Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro. “We have female part-time partners who made partners while being part-time associates,” one contact reports. Another agrees. “The two people running the office are both women, one of whom worked part-time after becoming partner,” she tells Vault.com, adding: “I’m delighted.”

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