General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

General Practice Section, Solo, Winter 1996

Part-Time Lawyering

A lot of lawyers ease into part-time practice at some point in their careers. Regardless of the reason--the birth of a baby, impending retirement, a lifestyle change, and so on--most lawyers consider, and experiment with, various part-time schedules before they are clear about which is best.

In "Life As a Mom Who Works Part-Time" (Chapter 20, The Woman Advocate: Excelling in the 90's, Copyright 1995 American Bar Association), author Catherine Hodgman Helm describes the part-time options she considered after her twin daughters were born. Although she refers specifically to moms working part-time, her analysis is useful for anyone considering a part-time schedule. Here's an excerpt:

  • Working several full days per week. Many women who are working part-time choose to work three or four full days every week. Each day they are in, they can devote themselves fully to the job; each day they are home, they can devote themselves fully to the children. This arrangement avoids the constant adjustments other approaches require. A lawyer may also be able to get more work done when she has a longer stretch of time--an entire day--within which to do it.

    ...[However,] to me, the disadvantages of this arrangement seemed to outweigh the advantages. Clients might not like the idea of waiting until my next scheduled day to receive the advice or information they need...But the main disadvantage I saw was this: every work day I would probably feel guilty about abandoning the girls, and every day at home I would probably feel guilty about not being in the office.

  • Working an irregular schedule. Another option is a schedule that completely varies in accord with the flow of work....This schedule might be easier for clients to adjust to, because you would be just as available to them as a full-time lawyer, at least at certain times. [Also,] there may be particular practice areas for which the irregular schedule would work particularly well.

    However, the unpredictable nature of this arrangement can cause certain problems. If your children are upset by changes in routine, the schedule could be difficult for them. In addition, ...some kinds of clients or matters are likely to need small bursts of attention rather than one sustained volley of it...And I think for this kind of schedule to work you have to be able to force yourself to [actually] take time off after the busy periods.

  • Working partial days. The schedule I decided would work best for me was working part of every day. My babysitter comes to our house from noon to 7 p.m....One advantage of this arrangement is that my children are often in their best moods in the mornings. In addition, because they nap in the afternoons, I am spared some extra guilt, as part of the time I'm away I would not be able to see them anyway.

    Also, the schedule is very predictable and regular, and minimizes inconvenience to other people: a client who calls me in the morning can always talk to me at the office at some point during the same day. A disadvantage of this arrangement is that I feel compelled to work at top pace during the hours I am in the office. If I do not plunge into real hard work immediately upon arriving, but rather read my mail or [call] a friend, suddenly a fifth or a quarter of my time for the whole day is gone...All part-time arrangements probably give rise to this feeling but the partial day approach intensifies it.

What to Tell Clients
With clients I feel close to, particularly with some woman clients and male clients who have small children and professional wives, I will discuss the details of my schedule. With most, though, I will simply say that I work "a flexible schedule" (which somehow sounds more flexible than saying I work part-time), and that I will be available to them either at the office or at home whenever they need me. I routinely give clients my home telephone number. I no longer feel justified in trying to protect my home life from being invaded by work telephone calls or faxes, although of course I try to keep them to a minimum.

What to Tell Opposing Counsel
I never tell opposing counsel that I work part-time. Many lawyers are hard to connect with over the telephone, so I do not think it will raise much suspicion if I am out of the office when opposing counsel calls, especially since I will be able to return the call a few hours later. I figure that what I do with my time is none of their business, as long as it does not impede the case or inconvenience them unduly.

Catherine Hodgman Helm practices labor and employment law at Irell & Manella in Los Angeles.

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