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Vol. 32, No. 5

The balancing act: Bars help lawyers juggle work and life

by Marilyn Cavicchia

A lot has changed in the eight years since the Atlanta Bar Association, the Georgia Association of Women Lawyers, and the Georgia Commission on Women released “It’s About Time,” a study on work-life balance.

At the time of the study, said Shayna Steinfeld, part-time lawyering was considered a temporary phenomenon, lasting six months or so while one adjusted to new parenthood or handled a family crisis. Now, explained Steinfeld, past president of GAWL, president-elect of the Atlanta bar, and founding member of its Women in the Profession Section, more lawyers are opting to keep flex-time or part-time schedules in the long term. And they’re not necessarily finding it a barrier to career success, she added.

A respected midsize firm in Atlanta has a partner who works part-time, and another big firm has a lawyer up for partner who works a reduced-hour schedule, she said.

Donnie Long, sections, committees, and membership director at the Cleveland Bar Association, said he knows of a law firm partner who has Fridays off and returns only urgent messages on that day. Another partner, at a 35-person firm, has flexibility in terms of when she arrives at and leaves the office.

But one thing generally hasn’t changed, said Elizabeth A. Price, a past president of the Atlanta bar and the moderator for a workshop on work-life balance at the February Midyear Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, National Association of Bar Executives, and National Conference of Bar Foundations, in Los Angeles.

“Only in the legal profession is working 35 hours considered part-time,” she said.

What stands in the way?

Obstacles do remain, the speakers agreed. There’s the emphasis on billable hours, often cited as a major barrier to work-life balance. Also, some areas of law are much more conducive to a balanced life than others, they said. Litigation is one area where it’s still quite difficult, they added, noting that the lawyers they cited as having achieved career success with a reduced schedule are generally not heavily involved in trials.

Flex or reduced-hour scheduling is often not based on written policy, noted Cynthia F. Pasternak, past president of the Beverly Hills Bar Association and co-chair of its Work-Life Balance Committee, but instead is “catch as catch can, and get what you can negotiate.” While that may work for individual lawyers, both she and Long said they would like to see firms move toward written policies that are then taken seriously, so there’s a more formal plan in place.

Pasternak mentioned a couple of recent articles that she found both frustrating and telling. A piece spotlighting 20 high-achieving lawyers under 40 included just two women, she noted, and most of the men on the list had no children. One of the 20 scoffed at lawyers striving for work-life balance through reduced hours, commenting that no one wants such a “life-style lawyer,” she said. And both women profiled in an article on female law partners had a full-time spouse at home.

“I didn’t have a house husband,” Pasternak joked, recalling her own experiences juggling career and family, “either with my first husband or my second one."

The “lifestyle lawyer” comment doesn’t square with what Long has observed. Clients care about building a solid relationship, often over many years, with a lawyer who is diligent and dedicated, he said; they don’t really care if that high-quality work is done in four days a week, or if a portion of it is done from home. It’s important, he said, for large firms to realize that if a lawyer burns out and leaves after just three to five years common among both women and minority lawyers, he noted the firm loses not just the often substantial sum it invests in new employees, but also those carefully tended relationships.

Balance is for everyone

While women lawyers have been and continue to be trailblazers when it comes to work-life balance, the speakers said that a generational shift means more and more men are seeking balance.

Pasternak said that when she proposed to her bar’s board what eventually became the Work-Life Balance Committee, she was careful not to name it in a way that would exclude men a strategy that continues in naming the committee’s events. In many of today’s families, she noted, there are two working parents, and both want to be heavily involved with their children. This is especially true, she said, of the next age group down from Generation X.

“Generation Y seems much more interested in having some time with the family,” she observed. Many families formally or informally designate one parent as the “primary parent,” who then might alter his or her work schedule, she added, but even then, the parent shouldering more of the financial weight still wants to have enough time for a meaningful role at home, too.

Long agreed that work-life balance is becoming less and less of a gender issue. A lot of large firms are realizing that the combination of a huge starting salary and a huge billable-hours requirement isn’t working as well as it used to when it comes to recruiting new associates. More and more, he said, today’s law school graduates want time for other pursuits, even if that means making less money.

And those other pursuits might not be children, he said: Many lawyers in their twenties are delaying starting families but want to travel or devote some time to other interests. Meanwhile, he added, older lawyers¬ especially men who sacrificed time with their own children see their younger counterparts striving for work-life balance and decide they would like more time with their grandchildren. That means work-life balance is neither solely a women’s issue nor solely a young lawyer’s issue, either.

Getting the ball rolling

All the speakers shared details regarding successful work-life events and efforts they had conducted, and that other bars may wish to borrow from.

During the 2005-06 bar year, the Cleveland Bar Association revitalized its Women in Law Section, and the section partnered with the local YWCA for a work-life conference. Neither the attendees nor the speakers were all women, Long noted; out of 100 attendees, 10 or 12 were men.

The section now offers continuing legal education seminars on a variety of topics, as well as monthly luncheons in which groups of 10 to 12 lawyers meet to discuss issues of common concern. The luncheons arose, Long said, when the bar realized that one of its assumptions that women lawyers in the Cleveland area knew each other and mentored one another was not accurate. Now, the luncheons offer a way to build those relationships outside of one’s own law firm, he said.

The success of the Women in Law Section’s activities has helped drive the bar’s Diversity Action Committee as well. The committee has modeled some of its events for minority lawyers on those offered by the women’s section, and now the two groups are partnering on some events. In March, the section and the committee jointly conducted the all-day Diversity Networking Conference for both women and minority lawyers; attendees earned five CLE credits, networked with in-house counsel at major corporations, and learned how to move into leadership positions at their firms.

The two groups are partnering again for a May program, called Improve Your Bottom Line: Attract, Retain, and Promote Women and Minority Lawyers, for managing partners and others involved in hiring at law firms. This event is aimed, in part, at helping to stem what the bar considers to be an alarming turnover rate among both women lawyers and lawyers of color. Work-life balance is one of the program’s centerpieces, as it is a driving concern for women lawyers and minority lawyers alike. Focus on billable hours at the expense of other aspects of life is a “white, male paradigm,” Long explained, and many women lawyers and lawyers of color leave large firms when they realize they can’t work there and have the quality of life they want.

Among the speakers will be Joan Williams of the University of California-Hastings Center for WorkLife Law and James Turley, chief executive officer of Ernst & Young, who will discuss how rethinking flex-time policies has helped his firm decrease the similarly high turnover rate in the accounting profession.

The timing for an April 2006 event organized by the Beverly Hills bar and its Working Parents’ Project which later evolved into the Work-Life Balance Committee could not have been better, Pasternak said. The Pepperdine University School of Law happened to be looking for a topic for the annual symposium it conducts through its law review; together, the bar and the law school developed Balancing Career and Family: A Work/Life Symposium.

Echoing what Long said about work-life balance being a multigenerational issue, Pasternak noted that the symposium offered sessions for lawyers of all ages, whether they were having trouble starting a family (perhaps having waited until they made partner), struggling to work and raise children at the same time, or coping with the increasing needs and challenges of caring for elderly parents. Along with experts on these and other topics, another notable speaker was actress Calista Flockhart, who was then balancing the demanding schedule of her lawyer-themed TV show “Ally McBeal” with raising her young son.

More recently, the committee organized a program at UCLA, after a law professor said his students were “panicked” as they tried to figure out how their family plans and other life plans fit with their career choice. The program, which addressed work-life topics and gave law firms a chance to meet the law students and tell them what they had to offer, schedule-wise and in other ways, was free for students and paid for entirely by sponsors. The bar made a little money on the event and saved some through the bar foundation for future events, Pasternak said.

Sponsors are critical, she noted, especially for work-life events geared toward law students and young lawyers. “They’re the ones who are really interested,” she explained, “but they can’t pay."

It’s possible, of course, to address work-life balance without organizing all-day events with big-name speakers. Steinfeld said the Atlanta bar’s work-life events tend to be on a smaller scale but are no less meaningful to attendees. The bar offers CLE programs and other events, generally attended by 20 to 80 people, that address work-life balance for lawyers all along the age continuum.

In general, she said, the bar’s approach is to focus on “the whole lawyer,” offering information and assistance that aren’t just geared toward career and practice. Does the lawyer, whatever his or her age, have a will? Is he or she experiencing challenges either directly or in helping elderly parents in which elder law expertise would be helpful? Those are examples of recent programs that have addressed the “life” half of the work-life equation, Steinfeld noted. Also in the “whole lawyer” vein, the Atlanta bar provides a local edition of the Complete Lawyer, an online publication focused on work-life and other aspects of being a well-rounded lawyer and person.

Whatever your bar’s approach, and whether it’s in work-life balance or another area that might particularly appeal to women or minority lawyers, Long said it’s not too difficult to get law firms on board to assist you. The May 2006 issue of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Journal, which focused on women in the law, pulled in roughly double the publication’s usual advertising revenue, he said. Why? Law firms and other companies thought that if they didn’t appear in that issue, it would seem as if they weren’t supportive of work-life balance, or of women lawyers in general.

“Peer pressure in the legal community is huge,” Long said and that can be a great advantage when trying to move the profession forward.