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Business is slow, and everyone is jittery. Partners feel that something has to be done to cut costs in difficult times. Is there anything you can do besides sending valued people out the door? Yes. You can take a different approach to cutting costs that is less drastic: institute flexible work arrangements that many people secretly want — and formulate them in a way that they will work over the long term, instead of sputtering out due to frustrations on the part of both the firm and the individual. If your first reaction to this idea is to roll your eyes and say, “That can’t work here,” hear us out. This is a potential win-win of great proportions. First and foremost, you’ll cut costs. Obviously, you can pay someone on reduced hours less than you would a full-time person. Second, instead of losing valued professionals, your firm will still have a strong link to talented lawyers. When the economy picks up again and there’s more work, you can bring them back full time (if they prefer), rather than having to scramble to hire new professionals. Third, you will avoid the firmwide trauma that layoffs cause. While layoffs obviously are devastating for those sent out the door, they’re almost as bad for those left behind. “Am I next” people wonder. They’ll squirm with the guilty feelings that being spared provokes, and view all their working relationships with apprehension, not even remotely comfortable that their positions are secure. This demoralization reduces productivity — just what you don’t need, with fewer attorneys to call on always demanding clients. Fourth, you will build enormous goodwill within your firm. If you show you are willing to be creative and eager to look for solutions rather than just terminating people, it will send a strong signal of caring and support during these times of economic doldrums. Fifth, you will be answering the secret dreams of many lawyers. Whether they say so publicly or not (and most won’t, especially the men), reduced hours to support a balanced, saner life is the holy grail of a lot of attorneys. Don’t mistake this for a women’s issue. It’s not just women with children who might jump at the chance for a real possibility at a flexible work arrangement. Men, too, want more personal time and balance. Look at the statistics in a report about the legal profession produced by Catalyst: 34 percent of the male lawyers surveyed reported that they selected their current employer because of lifestyle concerns. Even people without child care concerns want more sanity in their lives. More-senior attorneys have elderly parents, who sometimes need care, and some senior people, after working long hours for many years, would like to ease off without feeling forced to leave their firm. MAKING IT WORK The most important aspect of this program is to have a commitment within the partnership to not let it devolve quickly into a backwater. If those adopting part-time or flexible work arrangements are automatically perceived as “second-class citizens” in terms of assignments, image, advancement, and so forth, no one will sign on. And if they are assured that the firm will support these arrangements, only to discover that in fact there’s no real commitment to doing so, the firm’s credibility will be shot. Workable arrangements are most effectively accomplished by preparing a set of fair, comprehensive policies to govern the process. Policies for implementing alternative arrangements should be drafted with flexibility, to meet individual circumstances. The big killers of flexible work arrangements are frustration and resentment, caused by a perception of a lack of equity. These feelings arise on both sides of the table. Management often perceives that it has lost control, that part-timers are “getting away with something” and that it’s unworkable to house people with different arrangements under one roof. Lawyers on flexible arrangements frequently feel marginalized and taken advantage of. Often, their arrangements are ad hoc side deals whose terms are kept hush-hush. By contrast, policies that are widely shared throughout the firm can resolve all the issues about pay, bonuses, adjustments relating to hours beyond the agreed-upon working times, benefits, case assignments, advancement to partner and so on. Transparent and widely understood policies can prevent the resentment that abounds when, through ignorance, all participants believe they are getting the short end of the stick. Talking through potential problems at the outset of a flexible work arrangement will help model a way of dealing with problems that may arise. Historically, when there have been problems or misunderstandings in flexible work arrangements, they have gone unaddressed, with no healing conversation to try to reach a solution. These silent grievances can mount over time until someone decides the flexible arrangement isn’t worth it anymore, and then the attempt at flexibility becomes yet another disappointing statistic. Learning how to confront and talk about issues is critical to the success of these arrangements. Yet what’s required, above all, is some commitment to the idea that these arrangements can work. What often gets in the way of a flexible plan’s success is a fearful attitude, a perception that such a plan is different and too estranged from the established 24/7 work formula, and a sense that it threatens traditional law firm life and instantaneous accessibility. In fact, technological advances can tie us all to the office, so that attorneys can be accessible to the office and clients anywhere, any time. Lawyers are capable of shifting attitudes in the face of strong evidence that a new idea can work, and work well. Roll up your sleeves and look seriously at this possibility so that your workplace can have more flexibility with higher morale, together with increased productivity and cost savings. Holly English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair, N.J. Her book “Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in Legal Workplaces”, will be published this spring by Law Journal Press. Phyllis Weiss Haserot is president of Practice Development Counsel, a consulting, training, and coaching firm in New York. She is the author of “The Rainmaking Machine” (West Group 2000). If you are interested in submitting an article to law.com, please click herefor our submission guidelines.

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