If you want to be a forward-thinking firm and promote work-life balance for your lawyers, consider these ideas.
Currently the most-often used approach is to offer a reduced-hours schedule, allow telecommuting some days of the week, or provide for a combination of the two. Under the typical reduced-hours schedule, a lawyer who is in the office less than five days per week is paid a percentage of what a full-time lawyer would receive. For example, a lawyer who works an 80 percent schedule would be in the office four rather than five days per week and have minimum billable hours of 80 percent as well. Or to achieve the 80 percent, a lawyer might work three days in the office and one day from home each week. Since most lawyers’ work is tied to the billable hour, the work and time are portable, within the demands of any particular project, of course.
But there are more creative ways to apply the concept. For example, your firm could offer annualized hours so that a lawyer on an 80-percent schedule works full-time during particular projects, but then comes in only two days a week, and bills much less than 80 percent, during slower periods of the year. Another option is to allow schedules with “nontraditional” hours. For example, a parent might want to work in the office 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week, leave to spend time with the children, and after the kids are put to bed, finish up the day by working 9 to 11 p.m. from home. The possibilities for flexible working arrangements are endless.
REJUVENATION TIME. Elsewhere on the work-life balance front, firms could certainly make sabbaticals more prevalent. Short of that, they could suggest that attorneys take time off after a particularly stressful and busy trial or large transaction closes. That allows the lawyers to rejuvenate before heading back to work for the next spate of hectic matters and lengthy work hours. Even just ensuring that your lawyers actually take their full vacation time can make a huge impact and help them practice in a more constructive way over the longer term.
Also, tailoring individual arrangements that allow lawyers to work less for less money for a defined period makes particular sense right now, for firms that don’t have enough work to keep everybody busy in this economy. Many lawyers, for various reasons, would willingly volunteer if given this option—provided that there’s no stigma associated with it.
STOPPING THE STIGMA . Firm management and full-time lawyers need to dismiss the notion that a colleague who works a reduced-hours schedule is not dedicated to the law or the firm. These lawyers are not “slackers.” They simply have personal obligations or want to pursue outside interests—the kinds of things that can make them better people and better lawyers.
So how can your firm mitigate against the stigma of flexible work arrangements? Recognize that lawyers who bill 1,400 hours per year and are paid for only those hours are still valuable to the firm. Have a written plan outlining options and expectations, as well as designated people in place at the firm that can implement the plan and answer questions about it. This will allow lawyers to feel less anxiety about using the available options. And let those lawyers stay on track to partnership, just extend the track by a year or two if necessary.
The most important thing is to understand that a client can be happy and feel unaffected (or perhaps not even realize) when a lawyer is on a reduced-hours schedule. The key here is ensuring that lawyers in your firm who work flexible hours remain flexible in their approach to their hours. The law is, after all, a client-service industry, and the client is most important.
Diane M. Costigan is a certified executive, career and life coach who works with lawyers on leadership, career strategy, communication, business development and time and stress management.
Jamie J. Spannhake is an associate in the commercial litigation department of Dewey & LeBoeuf, working a reduced-hours schedule. She is also a certified holistic health counselor.