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Although more than 98 percent of Washington, D.C.’s largest law firms have part-time programs, usage rates are vanishingly low: Only about 3 percent of D.C. lawyers work part time. So what? Who cares? The policy is there, and if lawyers don’t use it, that’s their business. Right? Not quite. All law firm partners should care about whether their part-time program works for a simple and important reason: the bottom line. Especially in an unpredictable economic climate, firms need to ensure that they are doing everything in their power both to limit costs and to encourage valuable people to stick around. Although many D.C. firms have effective part-time programs, there is no question that such policies could be used more widely and more wisely. Numerous studies show that attorneys flee law firms because they believe that firms’ high billable-hour requirements prevent them from balancing their work and their personal lives — and the flight costs big bucks. To replace a second- or third-year associate costs between $200,000 and $500,000, according to industry estimates. It’s easy to lose a million dollars or more every year to turnover. If that sounds high, consider the costs when an associate walks out: lost productivity, knowledge, skills, and contacts; costs of extra legal recruiters and administrators; headhunter fees; recruiting-related travel, meals, and lodging; partners’ own billable hours spent interviewing and hiring; and time new attorneys spend getting up to speed that has to be written off. These costs are incurred over and over again when attorneys leave one after another: According to a 1998 survey conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 43 percent of attorneys are gone by their still largely unprofitable third year — only to be replaced by successive classes of attorneys who themselves leave. But law firms’ attrition-related losses go beyond personnel costs. Clients are increasingly dissatisfied by the constant turnover, which costs them in terms of institutional knowledge, personal relationships, and the costs of bringing a new person up to speed. Sometimes clients are entirely lost to firms, following departing attorneys out the door. Opportunities to generate new business are lost, too; the departing attorneys are often in position to hire outside counsel, and attorneys who feel mistreated by their former law firm’s poorly designed part-time program will hesitate to hire their former firms. Forty percent of lawyers in general counsel offices are now women, many of whom left law firms seeking better work/family balance. Whom will they hire? How do law firms know whether their part-time programs work? In “Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms,” the final report of the Project on Attorney Retention (PAR), we set forth a test firms can use to measure the effectiveness of their part-time programs. PAR is an initiative of the Program on Gender, Work & Family of American University’s Washington College of Law, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and supported by the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia. (The report is available at www.pardc.org.) PAR found a significant communication gap: Firms that thought they had well-functioning programs were not hearing from dissatisfied lawyers until they left the firm — and sometimes not even then. Men in particular are likely to give a different reason for leaving when their real beef is with the hours. Time and again, attorneys who worked part time (or wanted to) reported that their firm’s part-time program suffered from two basic problems: stigma and schedule creep. Schedule creep occurs when attorneys working part time find their schedules creeping toward full time — often at part-time pay. The same attorneys felt a stigma: that they were given lower-quality assignments and (formally or informally) taken off partnership track. In one instance, an attorney who worked upward of a 50-hour week found herself marginalized because of the perception that she was part time and part committed. Other studies also report pervasive problems with stigma and schedule creep in firms around the country. But what attorneys share with researchers they may not voice openly at their own firms, for fear of compounding the sense that they are not team players. Partners are often the last to know that their part-time program is a joke or, worse, a breeding ground for discontent. What’s a partner to do? The first step is to get a quick read of whether an existing part-time program is usable and effective. PAR has developed a simple and objective test using six criteria: � Usage rate.Usage rates are the key indicators of the health of your program. A part-time program will not reduce attrition if people don’t feel free to use it. To find your firm’s usage rate, simply take the total number of attorneys at your firm (partners, associates, counsel) and divide it by the total number of attorneys working part time. Where do you come out? In the District of Columbia, average usage rates are 2.6 percent for partners and 4.8 percent for associates, according to the NALP. These figures are far below the usage rates at firms with effective part-time programs: Twelve percent of attorneys at Palmer & Dodge in Boston work part time. In the District of Columbia, 7.7 percent of attorneys at Arnold & Porter are part time, followed closely by Hogan & Hartson, with 7 percent. Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius are also above average, each with more than 5 percent of attorneys working part time. It is also important to break down usage by gender. If virtually no men work part time, a firm needs to be concerned about whether its program marginalizes those who use it, for while some women will use a part-time program that is seen by others as the kiss of death to career progress, virtually no men will. � Quality of assignments.“Since I came back from maternity leave, I get the work of a paralegal,” said one New York lawyer. “I wanted to say: ‘Look, I had a baby, not a lobotomy.’ “ PAR heard many reports of firms where lawyers felt their assignments deteriorated sharply once they went part time. Some reported that they were even forced to switch to less desirable practice areas. Sometimes this stemmed from good intentions, from supervisors not wanting to burden a part-time lawyer. Compare the type of work, level of responsibility, and amount of client contact your firm’s part-time attorneys had before and after changing their schedules. Another good way to judge whether part-time attorneys are being pushed to the sidelines is to follow the leading accounting and consulting firm Deloitte & Touche and look at your firm’s largest and highest-profile matters to make sure that part-time attorneys are on the teams handling them. � Median hours and duration of part time.Time and again, PAR heard from attorneys who had received the message that the so-called responsible way to work part time was to work an 80 percent schedule for a short period. Eighty percent of a 60-hour week is 48 hours, which is more than many parents want to work. And raising a child takes years, not months; many parents would quit rather than maintain a schedule that limits their experience of child rearing to an affectionate kiss to a sleeping child. How long do your firm’s part-time attorneys stay on their part-time schedules? What percentage schedule do they work? A 65 percent schedule is not uncommon in firms with outstanding part-time programs. In such firms, attorneys may work part time for years or even decades. For example, at Palmer & Dodge in Boston, one employment partner became a partner while working part time, and worked part time for nine years before finally returning to full time. Says Jeffrey Jones, the firm’s managing partner: “It’s worth our while to give people the flexibility. She’s a wonderful lawyer, and if we had been inflexible, she probably wouldn’t be here.” A study of Boston lawyers found that part-time partners had worked a reduced schedule for an average of seven years. � Schedule creep.“I got the message that the only responsible way to work part time was to work full time” was a sentiment PAR heard over and over again. “They cut my hours and my pay — but not my caseload” was another common problem. Other lawyers reported that individual partners sent informal — sometimes explicit — messages that they refused to work with part-timers or refused to respect part-time schedules. When attorneys get paid for part time but work virtually full time, dissatisfaction and attrition will result. It is easy to see if your firm suffers from schedule creep. Look at the number of hours each part-time attorney has agreed to work and compare it with the number of hours he or she regularly works. There should be no difference, but most firms will find there is one. Some D.C. law firms are doing well. For example, part-time attorneys at Dickstein Shapiro report they do not work longer hours than they are supposed to, and the firm has a part-time coordinator who regularly reviews their hours and addresses any problems. Morgan Lewis similarly has a mechanism in place to adjust the workloads of part-time attorneys if they begin to work too many hours. � Comparative promotion rates.A surprising number of firms still take part-time associates off the promotion track as a matter of official firm policy. In many that don’t, lawyers look around and see that virtually no one on part time makes partner. The proof is in the pudding: Lawyers will be chilled from using a part-time program if part-timers don’t in fact make partner, whether or not they are still eligible for partnership in theory. A number of D.C. firms have promoted part-time associates, including Dickstein Shapiro; Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman; and Foley & Lardner. At some firms, such as Morgan Lewis, a part-time schedule will not necessarily delay the partnership decision; readiness is determined case by case. � Comparative attrition rates.Ample evidence exists that a usable and effective part-time program can sharply cut attrition. Yet a program plagued by stigma and schedule creep will not. The Boston study found that attrition among part-timers was often higher than that among full-timers, due in significant part to dissatisfaction with stigma and schedule creep. If your firm is losing part-time attorneys at a higher rate than it’s losing full-time attorneys, the dissatisfaction is hard to deny. A firm does not have a usable part-time policy if it has a low usage rate and pervasive schedule creep, where part-timers have low promotion rates, high median hours and attrition, and low-quality assignments. Taking a good, hard look at a part-time program is the first step in opening up a conversation about how to implement a usable and effective policy that offers balanced hours to any attorney who desires them. The next step is to retain a consultant to hold confidential conversations with people at all levels of the firm to assess what’s working and what isn’t. What are the elements of a policy that effectively reduces attrition? That’s a subject that takes more space than we have here; in fact, it takes so much space that the NALP is publishing a book about it next spring. Suggestions for creating and implementing effective policies are contained in PAR’s “Balanced Hours” report, based on best practices gleaned from law firms and other businesses across the country. Some D.C. law firms already have a number of “best practices” in place. For example, several firms use their part-time programs as recruiting tools and allow new hires to work part time; these firms include Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn; Howrey Simon Arnold & White; Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue; and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. Arnold & Porter has appointed a part-time coordinator to monitor its program; Dickstein Shapiro has had a part-time coordinator for several years. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Swidler Berlin are among the handful of firms that include both nonbillable and billable time in their part-time attorneys’ schedules. Both male and female attorneys work part time at Hogan & Hartson; Morgan Lewis; and several other firms. This is an important indicator of the acceptability of part-time lawyers in the firm’s culture. While no D.C. firm is perfect, it’s clear that firms are recognizing the importance of reducing hours without leaving a stigma so as not to interfere with the attraction and retention of top talent. Developing a truly usable part-time program is neither simple nor easy. But it’s far better than sitting year after year watching a million dollars or more walk out the door. Joan Williams, law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, and Cynthia Thomas Calvert, an employment attorney in Maryland and the District of Columbia, are co-directors of the Project for Attorney Retention. More information about the authors and PAR is available at www.pardc.org.
This article originally appeared on October 12, 2001.

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