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More and more individuals within law firms are calling for more flexibility, and many firms are trying to comply, whether they recognize the economic and cultural advantage to the firm or simply see it as a defensive move to placate associates and retain good lawyers. They’re going about it in different ways, but many of the tactics firms are seeking to integrate include such things as flexible-hour policies, alternative work locations, cross-training, valuing diverse skills and hiring contract lawyers. Hours are probably the most frequent, and most often contentious, means of flexibility. Many attorneys — men as well as women — have been seeking flexible and balanced hours to be able to spend time with their families or pursue other activities, although women have been the most vocal about it and have much more frequently taken advantage of firm policies that permit reduced hours. (About 95 percent of attorneys using flexible hours are women.) Another route is an arrangement that may total what is considered full-time practice but allows a day off or a partial day off, making up the time with longer hours on another day. According to statistics from the National Association for Law Placement, the percentage of part-time lawyers varies little by geographic location or firm size. Only about 4 percent of associates take advantage of the part-time policies that most firms claim to make available as an option. But we have only seen the beginning of a change in the way we look at work-life balance, and the growth of flexibility policies seems inevitable. A few firms have been formed with flexible hours at the core of their values — with good results. Reassuringly, these firms have been started by men as well as women, because they saw the policy as an important issue for themselves as well as their partners and employees. Although it may be commonly believed that flexible-hour arrangements hurt a firm economically, recent studies, particularly by the Project for Attorney Retention in Washington, D.C., have made a business case for flexibility actually being to a firm’s economic advantage when firms look at the cost side as well as revenue calculations. Turnover is so costly that being able to retain trained and talented professionals has a greater positive impact on the bottom line than requiring full-time work from everyone. This is true over the long term in both boom and soft economies. ALTERNATIVE WORK LOCATIONS Here again, flexibility in permitting part-time telecommuting or providing work space in places outside the firm’s traditional offices is being recognized as a viable alternative to the traditional model in which everyone is required to work in the same place. In reality, even without an official flexibility policy, attorneys routinely work in airports, airplanes, trains, clients’ offices, at home on nights and weekends, and in other places too numerous to mention — because they have to. Today’s fast pace requires that work be done wherever the worker is. As long as attorneys are together in one room when they need to be, where they do their own creative work should be a matter of where they do it most productively. Cynthia Froggatt, author of “Work Naked,” theorizes that where employees work best may be identified by where they chose to study in college. Those who studied in the library and needed to see others working around them (or gained energy from that) probably are better suited to work in a traditional office environment. Those who studied in their dorm rooms or apartments may do better working in home offices. And those who studied in the student union or coffee shops might be most productive now in similar environments. Assuming there is validity to this theory, which Froggatt has tested in working with many corporations, many employees would be more productive working at home or somewhere outside the firm’s office. Special facilities are being built and offered for additional location flexibility. To accommodate an increasingly mobile workforce, companies have established profitable businesses providing temporary office space for out-of-town meetings. All the needed services are provided. And some Big Five accounting and consulting firms have set up satellite offices in suburbs near many workers’ homes to enable employees to work, on some days, where it is more convenient and where less traveling is required. CROSS-TRAINING Cross-training is another way to increase flexibility. Often we hear about cross-training when referring to administrative employees who have been trained to perform functions that apply to more than one job or position. It can make their jobs more interesting, given the variety and new things to learn, as well as ensure that tasks get done when the employee usually responsible is not available. Cross-training can leave firms better prepared to serve their clients at any time. We are currently in a cycle that points out the desirability of cross-training legal staff and even partners. Bankruptcy was slow for several years, but now that it is hot again, corporate dealmakers have less to do. Real estate is slower in many markets. These are just a few examples. Those lawyers and paralegals who have some flexibility as to the areas of practice they concentrate in will have the easiest time negotiating peaks and valleys. In a small firm it is more likely that attorneys will be “cross-disciplinary” than in larger firms, where there tends to be narrow specialization. Given the down cycle in the economy, many firms are shifting transactional lawyers to such areas as litigation or bankruptcy. This redeployment is an attempt to avoid layoffs. This shifting from one practice group to another works best with one- to three-year associates who have less invested in an existing practice. Routine cross-training of entry-level associates as a matter of regular policy is a benefit to both firms and individuals. Firms will have greater flexibility at all times, and individuals will see multidimensional expertise both as an investment in them by their firm and as a way to maintain their marketability. Now that there are widespread mandatory CLE requirements, there is an incentive to learn more than one area of practice. Attorneys have to find some way to earn their credits, and flexibility is an asset. Attorneys will be able to take a broader view of clients’ problems, which is highly valued by clients. VALUING DIVERSE SKILLS Firms and legal departments, as well as other law organizations, need to give greater weight to the value of skills that lawyers do not learn in law school, such as strategic business thinking, interpersonal skills, training, mentoring, project management and firm business management. These important skills are a form of diversity that is underappreciated, especially in firm partnerships or among shareholders. Vital to the thriving firm of the future, these skills are highly valued by clients and young lawyers. The challenge we face is changing firm management’s way of thinking about what skills clients value and what attributes and skills are required to operate a successful professional business. CONTRACT LAWYERS Firms are finding that using contract lawyers — those who are temporarily engaged by a firm and are not considered regular staff — makes good sense in terms of economic and quality advantage in the following circumstances: When the firm wants to maintain the flexibility to expand and contract, closely tracking workload demands. In addition, experienced contract lawyers can be valuable when special expertise is needed for a sustained period, and it does not exist within the firm nor warrant “permanent” hiring of a person at that level of experience and practice focus. New and growing firms have used contract lawyering successfully to help establish themselves — without a long-term commitment to hefty salaries and benefits. In fact, the benefits package and administration are handled by agencies that search for and provide contract lawyers, easing administration time and costs. CHANGING EASILY, CHANGING QUICKLY Each of the components herein adds up to a truly flexible firm ready to change quickly in reaction to external circumstances such as the marketplace’s changing needs, and the needs and values of the workforce. Other fields, industries and professions have been adapting for some time. Law firms will need to become more flexible to retain their talent, make employees want to do their best work and compete. Firm management needs to do the new math and give more than lip service to workable flexibility policies. Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a New York-based consulting, training and coaching firm that helps lawyers obtain and build profitable and satisfying internal and client relationships.

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