With summer unofficially underway, many law firms in New Jersey and beyond are likely to see barren hallways as the weekends approach. But for those that seek to distinguish themselves from Big Law, or otherwise offer their employees an enjoyable place to make a career, work-life balance is treated more as a necessity than perk.
“We make it our business, frankly, to make sure that our people recognize the importance of leisure time,” said Robert Salad, managing partner of Atlantic City’s Cooper Levenson.
“We have a great advantage of having the Atlantic Ocean two blocks from our office,” he said. “I think the most important thing we do during those [warm] months is tell people, ‘enjoy the ride.’”
Indeed, leisure time and flextime are obviously part of the equation, but so is extended time away, according to Michael Stein, whose firm last year instituted a paid family leave policy, whereby a new parent is provided up to 20 weeks of leave with full pay. The parent, if the child’s primary caregiver, can get the full 20 weeks paid, and if the secondary caregiver, can get up to eight weeks paid, with the option of an additional four weeks unpaid.
“Paid leave is expensive,” said Stein, managing partner of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in Hackensack, but “you make it a priority.”
The program, launched last September, allows the new parent to use leave gradually over a six-month period, according to Stein, who said at least two people have used the program since its inception.
“A lot of the fears are, am I going to feel out of it? Am I going to feel like I took a step back?” Stein said, concerns the firm addresses by providing a “ramp-up” time for those transitioning back to the firm—such as a partial or flex schedule—and a senior lawyer mentor if needed.
Asked whether firm leaders budgeted for the possible lost revenue and productivity that might come with having several employees on fully paid leave simultaneously, Stein said, “because of the unpredictable nature of it, we didn’t do it with precision.”
“I was amazed at how little resistance there was, because everybody loved providing this kind of support and the kind of message it sends,” he said, noting that the idea was borne of discussions firm leaders had about recruitment, and how female lawyers cited paid leave as a draw.
Many firms, such as Pashman Stein, see striking an effective work-life balance as a matter of competition, insofar as it serves as a recruiting tool. Stories of lawyers eschewing big bucks at Big Law for big-enough bucks and a better lifestyle at a smaller firm are not too hard to come by.
At other firms, however, the effect of work-life balance isn’t necessarily approached as a pragmatic one. At Scarinci Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, work-life balance is “part of our strategic plan,” and “we talk about it all the time,” said Russell Ascher, executive director and CEO.
But “we don’t really look at ourselves in competition like that,” he said, citing the firm’s recent population growth from 45 attorneys to 75 as evidence enough that its policies work. “We don’t really lose sleep over what other firms are doing. … I do know that people are happy with what we do.”
What the firm does to foster good work-life balance is offer as much flexibility as possible in how the work gets done. Like at other firms, attorneys as Scarinci Hollenbeck are equipped and encouraged to work remotely, and invited to pursue flexible schedules. That’s not unique, but it goes a long way, Ascher said.
“When people are stressed out, productivity goes down,” Ascher said. “I’ve worked for companies where it’s, ‘you’ve got to be here by 7.’ We’re not like that.”
Philip McGovern Jr., managing partner of Roseland-based Connell Foley, agrees.
“I think they appreciate the fact that they are owners, by and large, of their time,” McGovern said. “You treat them as professionals. That goes a lot farther than some sandwiches every now and then.”
McGovern, who joined the firm in 1984, said Connell Foley “has never been a place where we expect the lights to go on at 7 a.m. and go off at 11 p.m.,” but, “at the same time, we’re a business.”
Work-life balance is “a conscious priority”—”something we talk about in recruiting … and at the partnership level,” he said.
For the attorneys themselves, it’s a constant balance in which you “steal from Peter and you pay Paul” depending on work vs. personal demands, McGovern said. He noted some, but not many, instances over the years where firm leaders had to approach employees about performance.
“Sometimes people get into personal situations and family situations that they choose not to talk to you about,” he said.
In the end, attorneys still have client obligations, as well as business obligations, to prioritize, firm leaders noted, such as hourly billing targets of 2,000 per year for associates at Scarinci Hollenbeck, and 1,950 hours per year for all attorneys at Connell Foley.
And so, for in-office perks, firms offer various things. Ascher put a favorite go-to of firms, and one employed by Scarinci Hollenbeck, quite plainly: “A lot of food.”
Pashman Stein, according to Stein, offers more routine perks, such as summer hours and healthy snacks, and some more seemingly unusual ones, such as a thrice-weekly visit from a physical trainer to the office’s small-but-functional gym.
Work-life balance, he put it, is “being as happy on Monday as you are on Saturday.”
Salad said Cooper Levenson’s geography is important not only because it’s near the beach, but because it’s a part of the relatively small, tight-knit community in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
He cited organized staff activities, such as during the blueberry harvest; sponsorship of the Atlantic City Boat Show each year; and events for “Let Us Eat, Please,” a charity organization founded by name partner Jim Cooper, who died in 2017. The firm also got involved with larger causes, such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, Salad said.
Firm lawyers and staff are involved in community events “not necessarily because it’s going to bring in business, but because it’s the right thing to do,” Salad said. “It’s a small community. If we don’t do it, we don’t necessarily know who else will do it.”