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   Jan/Feb 2002


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SmartPractices

The Flexible Firm: Win-Win Policies for Uncertain Times

Phyllis Weiss Haserot

By exploring new options and becoming more nimble, firms can be better prepared to weather economic cycles. They can also become more multidimensional, which will leave them better able to serve clients at any time.

Long before the economic downturn, an increasing number of individuals were calling for more flexibility within firms. Many firms are trying to comply, whether they recognize the economic and cultural advantage to the firm or simply see it as a defensive move to retain good lawyers. They are heeding the call in various ways, including through flex-time policies, alternative work locations, cross-training, strategic alliances and hiring of contract lawyers. These are sound strategies at any time, but they make even more sense in the current economic climate.

Flexible Work Hours

Many lawyers, men as well as women, have been seeking more flexible and balanced hours. Lawyers are, after all, people—they want to be able to spend time with their families and pursue other activities.

Typically a reduction in work hours is tied to a corresponding reduction in compensation. Another route is an arrangement that may total what is considered full-time practice but may allow a day off, or a partial day off, with the employee making up the time with longer hours on another day. Another valid arrangement is when someone works fulltime during a transaction or litigation and may then take time off between matters to compensate. So for some people, the balanced hours are on a quarterly or longer basis.

In each case, it is crucial to the arrangement’s success that hours do not inch back to full-time while reduced compensation remains (hence the term "balanced hours").

While some may still believe that flex-time arrangements hurt a firm economically, recent studies, particularly one by the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) in Washington, D.C., have made another case: Flexibility can actually be to a firm’s economic advantage when the firm looks at the costs as well as revenue calculations. In essence, turnover is so costly that being able to retain trained and talented professionals has a greater positive impact on the bottom line than requiring full-time work from everyone. This is true over the long term in both boom and soft economies.

Alternative Work Locations

Here again, firms are recognizing that permitting telecommuting or providing work space outside of their offices is a viable alternative to the traditional model (requiring everyone to work in the same workplace). Giving people options for where they work at certain times on certain tasks can actually improve their creativity and productivity.

A friend of mine, Cynthia Froggatt, who wrote the recently published book Work Naked, has a theory that where people work best may be identified by where they chose to study in college. Those who studied in the library need to see people working around them (or gain energy from that). Those individuals will probably work best in a traditional office environment. On the other hand, those who studied in their dorm rooms or apartments may do best working in home offices. And those who studied in the student union or coffee shops might still be most productive in similar environments today. Froggatt’s theory begs the question: As long as people are together in one room when they need to be, why not let them do their creative work where they can do it most productively? Many people would be more productive working at home or somewhere else outside of the firm’s offices.

There are even special facilities being built and offered for additional location flexibility. To accommodate an increasingly mobile workforce, companies have established profitable businesses providing temporary office space for out-of-town meetings. And some Big Five accounting and consulting firms have set up satellite offices in suburbs near workers’ homes, thereby enabling their people to work where it is more convenient, and requiring less travel.

Contract Lawyers

Firms are finding that using contract lawyers—those temporarily engaged by a firm and not considered regular staff—can make good sense. There are clear economic and quality advantages when the firm wants to maintain the flexibility to expand and contract, while closely tracking workload demands. In addition, experienced contract lawyers can be very valuable when special expertise is needed for a sustained period of time but does not warrant permanently hiring a person with that practice focus or level of experience.

New firms have used contract lawyering successfully to help get them established and growing, without a long-term commitment to a hefty salary and benefits. In fact, the benefits package and administration is handled by agencies that search for and provide contract lawyers, easing administration time and costs.

Cross-Training

Often we hear about cross-training in reference to administrative personnel who have been trained to perform functions that apply to more than one job or position. It can assure that tasks get done when the person usually responsible is not available. However, cross-training may be even more useful for legal staff and lawyers, because it leaves firms better prepared to serve their clients at any time.

The current economic cycle highlights the desirability of cross-training. For example, bankruptcy was slow for several years, but now that it is hot again, corporate deal makers have less to do. Many firms are shifting transactional lawyers to such areas as bankruptcy or litigation. In some firms, this redeployment is an attempt to avoid layoffs, but in any economy, cross-training has other advantages. Firms will have greater flexibility at all times, and lawyers will see multidimensional expertise as an investment in them by their firm and a way to maintain their marketability through economic valleys and peaks. Moreover, lawyers will be able to take a broader view of clients’ problems, which is highly valued by clients.

Strategic Alliances

Whether for greater geographic or substantive capability, formation of strategic alliances with other law firms, professional firms, suppliers or referral networks helps to keep a firm nimble as well as multidimensional to better serve client needs. The strategic alliances can be more or less formal, as the organizations desire.

Such alliances preserve the independence and identity of the allies while strengthening their reach.

The Bottom-Line Equation

The strategies described here add up to a truly flexible firm—one that’s ready to change quickly in reaction to external circumstances, such as the changing needs of the marketplace and the needs and values of the workforce. Other fields, industries and professions have been adapting for some time. Law firms, too, need to become more flexible to retain their talent, to make people want to do their best work and to compete successfully. Firm management needs to do the new math and give more than lip service to workable flexibility policies.

PHYLLIS WEISS HASEROT (pwhaserot@pdcounsel.com) is President of Practice Development Counsel, a New York-based consulting and training firm that helps lawyers build profitable and satisfying internal and client relationships. She is the author of The Rainmaking Machine (West Group). She can be reached at (212) 593-1549.

The new edition of The Rainmaking Machine is reviewed in this issue’s "Bookmarks," page 54.