From the bleary glow of new parenthood, part-time work has a powerful appeal. In theory, it epitomizes having it all, being a good lawyer and a good parent, too-being personally fulfilled, but not at the cost of career goals and advancement. It’s permission to operate one day at stroller speed, and the next, switch to the fast lane.

Nearly all the NALP member firms now offer part-time options, and more and more lawyers-mostly women, but, gradually, trailblazing men as well-are trying them on for size. Some see it as temporary (e.g., while the kids are little), while for others it holds the promise of an indefinite, long-term, balanced-hours career path, and an alternative to quitting entirely.

Part time looks good on paper, not just to lawyers, but to firms. According to 2001 data from the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR), a group at Hastings College of the Law, “effective reduced-hours programs can save law firms millions of dollars through increased retention rates,” and “create attorney satisfaction, establish a firm as an ‘employer of choice’ that cares about diversity, and improve recruiting efforts.”

Firms ignore such edicts at their peril, and almost universally they have responded by increasing the range of options for lawyers. By doing so, the firms hope to reap the economic and public relations benefits of this progressive-looking choice. But despite the best intentions of firms and lawyers, many part-time arrangements don’t work out. Expectations all around are prone to being unrealistic and out of sync. I was telling myself fairy tales long before I ever read them to my son.

When I decided to work part time, I was sure that compartmentalization, would be easy; but work and family crises often required throwing the schedule out the window. I was sure “part time” would mean a steady 15-20 hours of work per week, but in reality, the time whipsaws all over the place. I was counting on technology, child care, and school arrangements to banish cares and interruptions from my workday, but they didn’t pull through for me. When I found a few hours to work, the few brain cells I had left were not the most razor-sharp. And I thought it would get easier as the kids got older, but each passing month brought increased parental challenges and obligations.

My experience turns out to be typical. For example, PAR’s study of part-time programs at Washington, D.C., firms revealed a disconnect between firm management, who saw part-time work as a “problem” they have solved, and the part-timers themselves, who expressed deep dissatisfaction with the arrangement. PAR found that part-time lawyers feel marginalized, and that firms consider them to be less capable, less committed, less hardworking, and less serious. They are often relegated to counsel and staff attorney ranks instead of being on track for equity and management. Even partners risk “having their commitment questioned” and “a resultant loss of respect and support” when they pursue reduced hours, says former Jenner & Block managing partner Gregory Gallopoulos.

Plus, their pay suffers. Most firms promise to pay lawyers working part time a proportional amount, e.g., someone working 80 percent of full time should earn 80 percent of full-time pay. But PAR found that it was “standard practice” at some firms to pay part-timers less. My personal experience is that there is great temptation for part-timers to underreport hours, in part because the hours are less efficient (i.e., work done at 3:00 a.m. after putting your child back to sleep for the third time that night), and in part because they’re striving to overcome the perception they are less committed and capable than they were at full time.

As the mismatched expectations of part-time lawyers and their firms collide, the vital retention piece disappears. “It got to the point where I wasn’t doing well at anything anymore,” says former Allen Matkins lawyer Cindy Paulson, who was at the bleeding edge of the part-time trend when she lateraled to the firm in the mid-nineties. Feeling hamstrung on both the home and work fronts, she left. “Having it all and giving it up,” is how sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild described it in her book The Second Shift.

Some might say the part-time experiment has been tried and failed. My take is that lawyers will keep trying to be the person who brings home the vegan bacon alternative and fries it up in a pan, someone equally conversant with binkys and briefs. Such a future demands open-eyed clarity and directness on both sides.

Denise Howell’s practice focuses on online communications and intellectual property. She blogs at Bag and Baggage and ZDNet’s Lawgarithms, podcasts at this WEEK in LAW, and can be reached at dhowell@gmail.com. To join the conversation about part-time work go to amlawdaily.com.