(In the last issue of Diversity & the Bar®, we profiled several attorneys who utilized Alternative Work Arrangements to more effectively manage their personal and professional lives. In this month's issue, we'll look at specific ways to make these programs work for attorneys, their departments, and firms.)
Alternative Work Arrangements (AWAs) offer law offices and departments creative, flexible ways to meet the needs of both clients and employees. Designed to help attorneys contribute to their firms and departments while managing personal demands, common programs include telecommute, flextime, part-time, and job share.
These and other AWA programs are specifically designed to ensure full client coverage, save legal offices money through increased retention rates, and allow lawyers to further their careers at a different pace.
Yet, a number of problems can doom a well-intentioned program from the start. Poor planning, improper implementation, schedule creep, stigmatization — all of these factors and more can undermine the effectiveness of work/life balance programs.
In this article, MCCA explores a few of the common problems found in some AWAs, and details recommended practices for those committed to building and maintaining effective programs.
One of the greatest concerns of attorneys contemplating an alternative schedule is the deleterious effect it may have on their relationships with colleagues, and subsequently their careers. According to the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts' report titled, More Than Part-Time: The Effect of Reduced-Hours Arrangements on the Retention, Recruitment, and Success of Women Attorneys in Law Firms,1 30 to 40 percent of attorneys at every level reported that their relationships with partners and associates deteriorated after they adopted a reduced-hour schedule. Respondents found that colleagues questioned their commitment to their firms or departments, resented the attorneys' opportunity to reduce their hours, and held the negative impression that the AWA lawyer was leaving work for "standard-hour" attorneys to handle.
When alternative work practices are introduced in an environment that includes misperceptions — for example, that 'part-time' equals 'partial commitment' — the result is stigmatization. Some AWA attorneys are erroneously perceived as unavailable and unreliable by colleagues, partners, and supervisors. This, in turn, can lead to the assignment of low-level, rote work to AWA attorneys; their involuntary relocation to practice areas 'more compatible' with part-time work; the refusal of colleagues to work with them; or the de facto or de jure removal of AWA attorneys from the partnership track.
The stigma can persist even after a lawyer resumes a standard work schedule, according to one report by the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR), a group that has studied work/life balance issues in firms and departments since 2000. "[L]ong after I had returned full-time, partners still kept asking me when I was coming back full-time if I happened to be out of the office one morning," states one attorney quoted in the report.
Clearly, if AWAs are to succeed, law departments and firms must craft viable AWAs that are not stigmatized as 'mommy tracks' or programs for those who 'can't hack it' in the profession.
Solutions: To avoid ostracizing attorneys, offices and departments should speak openly, particularly to partners and supervisors, about the negative economic impact of high attrition rates and how AWAs can positively reverse the trend.
"If [the partners] understand that their ability to reduce attrition costs, meet client demand for stability and diversity, and compete with other firms for legal talent — all issues that ultimately impact their wallets — depends on the success of the balanced hours program, they will make it work."2
A related challenge is the need to break down cultural norms found in most workplace environments, such as the unconscious association of an attorney's talent and dedication with his or her 'face time' in the office. Misconceptions regarding nonstandard work arrangements and preconceived notions about being a team player abound, and need to be met head-on. Workshops or training seminars are good forums for explaining what AWAs are, how they work, that AWA attorneys have taken a cut in pay for time, and that negative behavior toward these attorneys will not be tolerated.
Poor Assignments, Staunched Advancement
Poor work assignments and stalled advancement can occur if stigmatization is left unaddressed. The Sept./Oct. 2003 issue of Diversity & the Bar (see "Balancing Act: Work-to-Life Balance in Departments and Firms"), reported that alternative work arrangements can benefit attorneys at just about any level of their careers and in any practice area, saving legal offices millions of dollars and preserving client satisfaction. Yet, all too often when an arrangement is poorly implemented, AWA attorneys find themselves demoted to uninteresting, low-caliber assignments, or passed over by partners who assign more compelling work to standard-hour attorneys.
Some AWA attorneys are relocated from their practice areas to areas more suited to part-time work — a move based on the belief that some areas of law, for example, litigation, are not suited for part-time attorneys. However, this belief is dispelled daily by attorneys like Eleanor Cabreré, Vanessa Vargas, and Antoinette Young, litigation counsel for International Truck and Engine Corporation, Abbott Laboratories, and Sodexho Inc., respectively, each successfully managing litigation work while utilizing an AWA.
Still, for many AWA attorneys practicing in law firms, the penalty for life balance has been removal from the partnership route altogether.
When AWA attorneys are penalized for their alternative schedules, not only does their job satisfaction take a nosedive, increasing the chance for attrition, but AWA attorneys also miss the chance to develop the professional skills they will need to be considered for partner at any point.
Solutions: Legal firms and departments can easily track whether part-time attorneys are receiving the same type of work as those working a standard-hour schedule. Frequent review of assignments can help ensure that attorneys working both standard and nonstandard schedules are receiving comparably challenging work.
Similarly, legal offices can invest in training forums to counter resentment that standard-hour attorneys may feel. "Even attorneys who do not have demands on their time from sources outside the office feel resentful if they believe they cannot reduce their hours and must 'pick up the slack' caused by attorneys who are working reduced hours." 3 When standard-hour attorneys not only learn more about AWAs but also gain access to the same opportunities, "backlash" against AWAs is greatly lessened.
Another major challenge faced by attorneys is managing their time properly to avoid schedule creep — when part-time schedules slowly creep back up to full-time schedules.
This happens quite frequently, and attorneys find themselves working full-time hours for part-time pay. "Firms sometimes compensate part-timers for the extra hours worked, which is better than not doing so — but the fact is that if part-time attorneys wanted more pay rather than more time, they would not have reduced their hours in the first place."4
"Keeping your workload manageable is a challenge when you're working full-time, so obviously it continues to be one when you're part-time," says Target Senior Counsel Theresa Harris, whose flex arrangement allows her to work four days a week. Harris, who worked with her supervisor to design a detailed plan outlining her arrangement, learned that schedule creep can occur even when one is vigilant about it. "One of my major clients came up with a new strategy that was not on the radar when we came up with my part-time plan," relates Harris. "Yet, it is such a dynamic and critical strategy to the company that I didn't want to miss it." Though Harris was able to find a viable compromise, many AWA attorneys experiencing schedule creep do not and ultimately leave their firm or department.
Schedule creep can force an uncomfortable and ultimately untenable situation, where, by unspoken expectation, supervisors challenge attorneys to continue doing the same amount of work they did while full-time, and attorneys feel compelled to prove they are still committed members of the legal team capable of pulling their own weight.
Solutions: Schedule creep is almost always the result when neither the attorney nor management fully consider the implications of how an attorney's arrangement will affect the way work gets done. Going through the exercise of preparing an AWA plan guards against this and is beneficial for all involved. A proper AWA plan lays out how an attorney's workload will be rebalanced to accommodate the reduced schedule, how the work will be completed, and how the attorney will deal with emergencies that may arise.
Cynthia Calvert, co-director of PAR, is an advocate for creating a plan with the part-time attorney before a problem crops up — "an obvious, but frequently overlooked issue that eliminates deadline problems and frustration." She explains,
"It means deliberately re-distributing the work, but not in a way that increases the work of already overburdened standard-hour attorneys."
In Harris' case, the Target legal team opted to bring in a second attorney to help. "This has worked out wonderfully. I still go to all the meetings," says Harris. "I am still the primary contact and do much of the work, but we're offering the client better service because we have two heads and four hands working on it." Harris is extra vigilant about her schedule, and sets parameters for herself to avoid the tendency to work beyond the hours stipulated in her reduced hour plan.
Another option for departments and firms is to monitor for schedule creep by comparing the hours an attorney has worked with the hours the office has budgeted. "If the comparison shows that attorneys on nonstandard schedules are consistently working more hours than their balanced-hour agreements call for, then schedule creep is undermining the effectiveness and usability of the policy."5
The bottom line is that, as with any program, policy or schedule — standard or not — problems can arise, but a certain amount of foresight and pre-planning can prepare offices to deal with problems or prevent them altogether.
As law firms and departments continue to look more like America, lawyers will increasingly demand flexibility to enjoy professional success and a rewarding personal life.
Companies and firms who lead the way with effective AWAs will win the war for talent and a healthy bottom line.
- Williams, Joan and Cynthia Thomas Calvert, Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms, Final Report of the Project for Attorney Retention (2001), p. 14.
- Id. at 29.
- Id. at 27.
- Williams, Joan and Cynthia Thomas Calvert, Project for Attorney Retention Interim Report (March 2001), p. 4.
- Williams, Joan and Cynthia Thomas Calvert, Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms, Final Report of the Project for Attorney Retention (2001), p. 18.
- Id. at 20.
- Id. at 30.
Alea J. Mitchell worked for MCCA® as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan. She is now the featured editor for Diversity & the Bar.
From the November/December 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®