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Law firm associates find that the act of balancing a busy workload with just about any outside interest often seems like an impossibility. So when Michele Hong began thinking last year of ways to have more than a sporadic commitment to public service work without giving up her litigation practice at Rubin Baum, she was not entirely sure it could be done. But she pitched to the firm a part-time schedule that would allow her to work one full day a week at a nonprofit agency, and was pleasantly surprised that Rubin Baum quickly approved the arrangement. In March, Hong returned as an eighth-year associate to the firm where she started her legal career, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, on the condition that she be allowed to keep her four-day schedule. Now, after a little more than a year of lawyering four days a week and doing non-legal work for the private child care agency Edwin Gould Services for Children one day a week, Hong said the arrangement has allowed her to foster separate areas of her life that she had feared could not coexist peacefully. “I have these diverging interests and I didn’t want to have to give one up over the other,” she said. “I have to say that I enjoy being a lawyer a lot more now that I have this different perspective.” A native of New York’s Westchester County who attended Columbia University, Hong, 32, started at Fried Frank after graduating from Cornell Law School in 1993. In addition to her litigation practice, she was active in pro bono matters, working on child custody cases and on behalf of battered women. She left for Rubin Baum in 1996 in search of a saner lifestyle. But she continued her pro bono efforts as a member of the Committee on Children and the Law at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. When her three-year term on the committee ended last year, Hong decided that she wanted to stay active in public service, and she concluded that the only way to get good, interesting work was to be available for a full day each week. The thought of asking for a reduced schedule was daunting, but when she suggested the idea of a four-day week to Stephen Marshall, who heads the litigation department at Rubin Baum, she found him and the firm eager to try to make it work. “We applauded that desire,” said Marshall, “and we were able to accommodate her.” With approval accomplished, Hong began a search for an agency at which to work. Assisted by the City Bar’s Public Service Network, which matches lawyer volunteers and organizations that need them, she visited a handful of nonprofits before settling on Edwin Gould Services for Children. She took on non-legal work in part because she felt it was unrealistic to try to litigate for the agency one day a week. “But I also didn’t want to do something legal,” she said. “Part of the allure was to do something different than I do the rest of the week.” Since starting at the foundation last fall, Hong has worked mainly on behalf of the Edwin Gould Academy, a boarding school in Rockland County for abused and neglected children. She typically spends each Friday in the foundation’s Gramercy Park offices, researching criminal justice issues and writing grant proposals. Hong is quick to applaud Rubin Baum for approving and encouraging her arrangement, but she did find that the leaner staffing of litigations at a smaller firm inevitably meant there were fewer people to turn to for support. “Whether it was just perception or not, I just felt as though I was working a lot of weekends and nights to make up for my day [off],” she said. “I felt like if I was going to work those kinds of hours, it sort of defeated the purpose of going to a smaller firm for a better lifestyle.” Early this year, Hong broached the subject of returning to Fried Frank with litigation department chairman Gregory Joseph, with the condition that she be allowed to continue the four-day schedule. Joseph said his experience with the handful of part-time attorneys working in the litigation department had convinced him that such arrangements can work. “The issues you have are one, can you staff it properly and two, is there going to be any resentment,” Joseph explained. He said that staffing question is settled by putting part-timers on aspects of litigation that do not require travel. He added that resentment is avoided because full-time associates realize that they are on a different track and not in competition. As an eighth-year associate, Hong is typically the most senior associate on a case, with supervisory duties over a team of junior associates. She said she has been pleased to find that her work has been as varied as it was when she was full-time. “I’ve tried to use her as a senior associate and not limit her in any way because she’s part-time,” said Fried Frank partner Gregg Weiner, who is working on a case with Hong. “The one thing we felt a need to do was to bring in a mid-level associate who could really backstop her.” Under her arrangement with Fried Frank, Hong is paid a percentage of her class’ salary and bonus. Her model schedule is Monday through Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and she reports that “it roughly works that way.” But she emphasized that it is critical from a relationship perspective not to treat the schedule as sacrosanct. “It’s really hard to justify not working when my whole team is working all night,” she said. Weiner agreed that Hong’s willingness to pitch in with late nights and weekends when necessary — and to occasionally work a Friday and make it up with a day off at a less busy time — has been invaluable. “There needs to be a respect for the arrangement,” he said, “and I think there also needs to be some flexibility in the arrangement so that when emergencies come up, the associate can modify her arrangement and put in some extra time.” Merging her dual lives somewhat, Hong recently began working at Edwin Gould on behalf of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, whose Corporate Law Project places minority college students who are headed to law school in law firms. And she said that if her experience is any indication, law firms are at least trying to take steps to accommodate their associates. “I would encourage associates to follow these opportunities because firms are not as closed-off as one might think,” she said. “You don’t know what you can get until you ask for it.”

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