April 2003  Volume 29, Issue 3
April 2003 Issue
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Is Your Firm's Part-Time Program a Retention Tool?
by Joan Williams and Cynthia Thomas Calvert
Part-time programs can be a business asset or a liability. Take this test to learn if your policy's working.

When we tell partners that an effective part-time program can improve their recruiting efforts, cut their costs and increase client satisfaction, they usually respond with disbelief because they're not seeing these benefits from their part-time programs.

Their incredulity is justified-sort of. Existing part-time programs are not the answer. Rather than being an asset-a tool that helps firms retain talented and valuable lawyers, attract top recruits and decrease client dissatisfaction caused by turnover-existing part-time policies are frequently a liability that breeds frustration and resentment. They can't be a beneficial part of a firm's business plan because lawyers would rather leave than subject themselves to the professional dead-end that most part-time programs represent.

But not at your firm, right? Well, before you decide this article was meant for the firm down the street, consider this: The Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) spent two years studying part-time work at law firms. The results, published in Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms, reveal a huge communication gap between part-time lawyers and law firm management. Even where management described for PAR their wonderful part-time programs, lawyers at the very same firms often recounted problems with stigma and schedule creep. The lawyers reported receiving less-desirable work assignments, having to switch practice areas, being removed from the partnership track and losing status and respect among colleagues. They told of losing benefits, working hours that amounted to full-time and feeling isolated. Many had left their firms or were considering leaving. They didn't feel they could discuss their experiences with management, for fear of being viewed as uncommitted to the firm. The lesson here? You need to find out if the lawyers in your firm share your view of your firm's part-time program.

The PAR Usability Test: Is Your Program Usable?
PAR has developed a simple and straightforward test to allow you to determine if your firm's part-time program is usable-in other words, if it permits lawyers to reduce their hours without sacrificing their careers and is, therefore, an effective retention tool. The test measures six items. The first two are direct measures of usability; the second two measure the presence of two common problems; and the final two are indirect tests of whether a policy is successful in achieving retention goals

1. Usage rate, broken down by sex
2. Median number of hours worked and duration of the balanced hours schedule
3. Measure of schedule creep
4. Comparison of the assignments of part-time lawyers before and after they reduced their hours
5. Comparative promotion rates of lawyers on standard and part-time schedules.
6. Comparative attrition rates of lawyers on standard and part-time schedules

Program Usage Rate: Watch the Signals
Although Bureau of Labor statistics show that approximately 15 percent of all professionals work part-time, National Association for Law Placement figures indicate that only about 3 percent of lawyers work part-time (reported in NALP's "Part-Time Schedules Remain Widely Available But Rarely Used by Attorneys," November 2000.)

Where part-time work is not stigmatized, usage rates for law firms should more closely resemble those of all professionals. At Palmer and Dodge in Boston, for example, 14 percent of all associates worked part-time in 2001. If your firm has a usage rate of less than 10 percent, it is a sign that the firm's culture makes the use of part-time work undesirable.

Another key statistic is how many men are working part-time at the firm. Men are just as likely as women to experience frustration balancing their professional and personal lives-but men are much less likely to sacrifice their careers as a result of the frustration. They will leave the firm rather than endure the stigma and professional dead-end of part-time work. Therefore, if there are no men using your firm's part-time program, it's another signal that the program is not usable.

Median Hours Worked and Duration of Schedule
It's a common assumption in law firms that the "responsible" way to work part-time is to work an 80 percent schedule for only a limited period of time. Firms that structure reduced-hours programs around this assumption likely do not have a usable policy. An American Bar Association "Career Satisfaction Survey" (published in 2000) found that 46.8 percent of associates at large firms nationally work more than 60 hours per week, which translates into a 48-hour week for a typical 80 percent "part-time" schedule. Lawyers who want to reduce their hours so they can have a life outside of the office are not going to find a 48-hour week too helpful. Moreover, the assumption that lawyers will reduce their hours only for a limited period is unlikely to provide the work-life balance that lawyers seek: A study by the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts ( More Than Part Time: The Effect of Reduced-Hours Arrangements on the Retention, Recruitment and Success of Women Attorneys in Law Firms, conducted in 2000) found that lawyers are likely to want to work part-time for a number of years.

If you find the median hours of your part-time lawyers are in a range that would be considered full-time or overtime by non-law firm standards, your policy is not effective. Similarly, if you find the median duration of part-time schedules is short (part-time lawyers work part-time for only a few months), your policy is probably not a useful retention tool.

Schedule Creep
Schedule creep is the tendency of part-time hours to move gradually to full-time hours-yet still for part-time pay. It is a major reason lawyers leave their firms rather than seek reduced hours, and why lawyers on reduced schedules often give up and decide to leave, too.

Measuring schedule creep is an indispensable step in determining the usability of your firm's part-time program. You should already have records documenting how much time each lawyer works. All that's required is to compare the hours worked with the hours budgeted. You can quickly determine whether lawyers on part-time schedules are consistently working more hours than are called for by their part-time agreements.

Comparison of Assignments
If part-time lawyers do not get quality work assignments-and many report they do not-their development will suffer. Moreover, if they are shifted to nothing more than low-level, routine matters, they will soon become disenchanted and leave the firm.

To compare work assignments, you need only look at the billing records of part-time lawyers. If, for example, too much rote work and too little client contact is evident, your firm's policies are likely not effective and usable.

Comparative Promotion Rates
For years, most law firms have hired entering classes composed of roughly equal numbers of men and women. Yet 84 percent of partners are still men, according to NALP research (reported in "Women and Attorneys of Color at Law Firms," 2002). One factor contributing to the low proportion of women partners is the practice, de facto or de jure, of taking part-time lawyers off the partnership track.

Among the lawyers in the PAR survey, most viewed reduced-hour work as ending all hope of partnership. You can test the accuracy of this perception by comparing the promotion rates of lawyers on part-time schedules to those on standard schedules. Although the promotion rate will not necessarily be identical for these two groups, a persistent imbalance in favor of standard-hours lawyers may well indicate that part-time lawyers are being penalized in terms of promotions.

Comparative Attrition Rates
The final element of PAR's usability test compares the attrition rates of lawyers on part-time schedules with those on standard schedules. The 2000 study by the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts found that, given the problems with existing part-time policies, the attrition rates among reduced-hours lawyers were even higher than among other lawyers.

And there was another finding: While men with standard schedules had an attrition rate of 9 percent and women who were working standard schedules had an attrition rate of 12 percent in 1997 and 1998, women who were working reduced hours averaged an attrition of nearly 23 percent. These figures suggest the usefulness of a comparison between men working full-time, women working full-time, men working part-time and women working part-time.

If the attrition rate among lawyers working reduced hours is significantly higher than for the other groups, this may signal that problems exist with your firm's part-time policy.

Are Your Numbers Yelling "Overhaul"?
So, have you gathered these measurements for your firm's part-time program? How does your firm do on the PAR test? Do you have good numbers that reflect a usable policy, or numbers that you hope law school placement offices never see? If you are less than satisfied with the results, it's time for an overhaul.

You can start by reviewing the essential elements of an effective part-time policy, which are set forth in PAR's report Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms, available for free at www .pardc.org. The report also contains information on how to implement a new and better plan that will serve as a business asset to your firm. An effective part-time policy is a vital tool in attracting and retaining the best talent for your firm-and that is a competitive strategy that simply makes good business sense.

Sidebar: Balance and Retention


Joan Williams and Cynthia Thomas Calvert are Co-Directors of the Project for Attorney Retention, a nonprofit organization funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and supported by American University Washington College of Law. They can be reached at info@pardc.org.