Can lawyers work part time? A recent survey from the National Association for Law Placement showed that the number of lawyers working in part-time positions continues to be very small, just slightly above 6 percent. Lawyers at large firms, particularly in New York, have a significantly lower rate of working part time than those in other professions. In addition, the survey showed a dramatic imbalance between the sexes in terms of part-time work: 90 percent of the part-time associates in New York and Washington, D.C., were women. On the national level, 13 percent of women lawyers work part time and only 3 percent of men do.

Certainly, there can be little doubt that there is much value to part-time or other flexible-hour positions, particularly for those who are raising families or may otherwise not be able to commit to full-time work. And there is significant value for firms in terms of retaining talent and hiring part-time associates and partners to work in important practice areas where there is a need for experts, but the firm might not have sufficient work to keep lawyers busy full time.

The survey raises the question of how to increase opportunities for part-time or other flexible-hour positions. On one level, it may be a question of the hostility of the billable hour model to the idea. The crushing hours and ready-at-a-moment’s-notice state of mind at many large firms make a part-time schedule seem less than desirable for employers. Not every firm can see that retaining talent is just as, if not more, important than the number of hours billed.

On another level, it is the issue of the all-consuming work of law practice. It is not easy for the attorneys themselves to find a way to compartmentalize and set boundaries around the practice of law. Lawyers have a knack for making work for themselves and squeezing complexity out of otherwise simple situations.

Certainly, anyone who has ever practiced law knows why it may be hard to commit to a part-time schedule. A short inquiry from a client can turn into a 15-page memorandum and 30 hours of time. A summary judgment motion and its voluminous exhibits can have you waking up at dawn for weeks on end. It is difficult to set limits around the practice of law, and that is a feature of the profession that many of us have had to learn to accept.

So, is a part-time schedule for lawyers at large firms destined to be the extreme exception to the rule? We do not think it has to be.

While part-time schedules for lawyers may be different from those in other professions, we think they are still feasible. Some of this will require creative solutions and willingness of the part of the firm. Firms should make telecommuting equipment available, allow lawyers to work from home and create centralized assignment systems that can adequately staff cases to permit part-time schedules. Perhaps flat-fee arrangements are better fits for part-time lawyers than are hourly arrangements.

In addition, firms should do what they can to ensure that part-time attorneys are not stigmatized and have opportunities to advance to counsel or partner positions. Measures like these can make the difference for employees who may feel their careers will grind to a halt if they decide to work part time.

Even with a firm’s best efforts, lawyers must be creative and flexible. Attorneys are going to have to be willing to accept that some weeks they may be working 80 hours, but other weeks they will balance it out and work only 20 or 30. But it can be done. A 2009 survey by the Project for Attorney Retention lists many success stories of partners in part-time or flexible-hour arrangements who have been creative enough to handle their cases effectively, while escaping the 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. model.

Finally, how to cure the gender imbalance? Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the imbalance in part-time work between men and women is that it is likely a result of years of stereotyping and sex discrimination. Regardless of the precise cause or causes of this imbalance, we think that reducing the stigma associated with part-time positions could help to close the gender gap. Above and beyond that, options for part-time or alternative schedules should be phrased in gender-neutral terms, and firms and other employers will have to make the effort to reformulate their expectations and thinking on this issue. For example, instead of maternity and paternity leave, it should be caregiver leave.

We think that, while legal work can be grueling and consuming, it does not and should not mean that the practice of law is so inflexible that it does not permit more widespread acceptance of part-time or flexible-hour arrangements.•