September 28, 2011 Articles

Finding My Way on a Reduced-Hours Schedule

The result of a reduced-hours schedule can be a more manageable practice and a more peaceful coexistence between your professional and personal lives.

By Sara E. Dionne

During my first pregnancy, I could not imagine slowing down at my job after becoming a mom. As a fourth-year associate, I had spent my first few years at my firm working hard. I found my work exciting and engaging. I could not imagine why I would want to change this.

Fast forward approximately one year later. After the birth of my first son and my maternity leave, I found the adjustment back to work more challenging than expected. Some challenges I anticipated (e.g., the need for flexible childcare) and was able to manage with a strong support network and some careful planning. Other challenges, however, caught me completely off guard. Key among these was the tug-of-war I felt between my professional life and my new title as mom. I felt spread thin between these two worlds, many days unsatisfied with my job performance in either role. I managed to get what I needed done, but had neither the time nor the energy to enjoy work as I had in the past, nor to be as engaged as I wanted to be at home.

Despite these feelings, I was hesitant to reduce my hours at the firm in a meaningful way. I was worried that a reduction in hours would permanently leave me on the sidelines without the opportunity to get interesting and challenging work, take on greater responsibility, or continue to grow as a young lawyer. Knowing something needed to change, I initially reached out to two partners in my office about cutting back 10 percent. It was only with their encouragement and support that I ultimately decided to make a more significant reduction to an 80 percent schedule.

This decision was more than four years ago. I am amazed now at how difficult the decision was at the time. In retrospect, it is apparent to me that it was the best fit for me. The work I do as a reduced-hours lawyer is the same work I did as a full-time lawyer. I still feel engaged and challenged by my work. The sole difference is that I have chosen to experience this work at a slower pace. The result for me has been a more manageable practice, a happier home life, and a more peaceful coexistence between my professional and personal lives.

I credit my happiness with this choice to both external and internal factors. Externally, I have been fortunate to work at a place that is truly committed to making reduced-hours schedules work. For example, during my reduced-hours tenure, my firm has dedicated a partner to oversee the firm’s alternative-work arrangement program. This means that I have a designated person to go to with questions or concerns. Several times during my career when litigation demands resulted in higher than normal hours, this partner would contact me out of the blue just to check in, see how I was doing, and see if he could assist with any workload management issues. 

I also have been fortunate to find mentors who have developed and maintained their practice on a reduced-hours schedule. Working with attorneys who have successfully reduced their schedules has given me confidence that I could balance meaningful work with a reduced schedule. More practically, seeing how others have approached their reduced schedule has been an excellent resource to figure out how to best balance the demands of the workload.

Beyond this strong support, I credit my happiness on my reduced schedule to a few lessons I have learned over these past four years. Key among these lessons is to accept that workloads ebb and flow. My reduced-hours schedule reminds me to enjoy when things ease up a bit, taking full advantage before things ratchet up again, as they inevitably do in a litigation practice.

Hand in hand with this lesson, I also continue to focus on being where I am. I constantly remind myself that I accomplish little by worrying about my upcoming to-do list at work when I am with my kids—or worrying about my time away from my kids when I am working. While this idea is pretty obvious, I must admit that implementing it is something of a work in progress.

Over these past four years, I have also learned that flexibility is key. After experimenting with a variety of schedules over the years, I have found that attempting to take one day per week off works well with my reduced schedule. I attempt to take the same day off each week to allow my colleagues to predict when I will be in the office, as well as to enable me to attend regular activities during the week with my kids. While I attempt to minimize my work commitments on that day, sometimes work demands require flexibility. This may mean working from home for a small portion of the day, and occasionally it means travelling or going into the office for the entire day. On the flip side, however, a flexible schedule also lets me participate in the preschool concerts and playgroups that spill over to other days. Approaching my schedule with flexibility allows me to be a better lawyer and a more engaged parent.

Above all, I have learned that a key component of success on a reduced schedule is to do good work. Ultimately, the quality of my work product and the satisfaction of clients speaks for itself. In this sense, being a reduced-hours associate is not that different from working a more traditional schedule. Working fewer hours has not changed the expectations of clients—it has simply slowed the overall pace of my work.

Successfully managing my reduced-hours schedule is at times challenging. I have learned much from my first year returning from maternity leave and continue to do so. Looking back, I know that I chose the right avenue for me, making me a happier and more focused parent and attorney.