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August 16, 2019 Article

Maintaining Perspective While Considering and Pursuing Alternative Work Arrangements

Revisiting a 2017 essay by Section Leader Christina Plum.

By Christina Plum

I was in my third year of practicing law when I sought out my first alternative work arrangement. After leaving a job at a large Chicago law firm, I was interviewing for a nonprofit legal services position in northern Wisconsin. The new job seemed a great fit for me: I would provide outreach and representation to Native American elders concerning retirement and public benefits. The job would call on my skills as a lawyer, a public speaker, and a one-on-one communicator to directly serve a population in need. Excited about the possibilities, I was tempted to accept the job offer on the spot, exactly as it had been presented. Instead, I hesitated.

I had recently left my law firm job in search of greater work-life balance; I wanted to spend more time with my extended family after the unexpected death of my mother. I also hoped to continue to serve the profession as an active bar association volunteer in the State Bar of Wisconsin Young Lawyers Division. So, I carefully considered how to ensure that the new job would be a crucial part of my professional life, but not my entire life. Ultimately, I proposed that I work four days a week, with flexibility to float my day off so I could travel two days one week and work five days the next week as my other obligations required.

To my surprise and delight, the employer agreed to my proposal and reduced my salary accordingly. With my reduced schedule working for a nonprofit law firm, I was making one-third of what I made at the Chicago law firm, but I was able to pursue my professional goals as a lawyer and bar leader and also to spend time with the people I cared about most.

After several years, I returned to full-time work. First, I served as a law clerk for an appellate court and then as a court commissioner for a state trial court, where I presided over small claims trials and initial hearings in family law cases. But my need for an alternative work arrangement arose again when I had my daughter. My husband and I relocated to southeast Wisconsin to be closer to family, and I was thrilled to find part-time work as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. My part-time status allowed me to not only continue to develop as a lawyer and teacher but also to spend more time with my daughter in her early years and to focus on the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division, which I chaired in 2005–2006.

I love my current alternative work arrangement. However, as I look back on my career, I’m aware that each time I’ve elected to work less than full time, there have been trade-offs.

In the years that followed, I worked in private practice with my husband and for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Milwaukee. Five years ago, I moved from a full-time role as a law clerk to a part-time staff attorney for the court. I currently work three days a week, and, as my family, friends, and coworkers can attest, it is a terrific fit for me. My work is challenging; I use my analytical, research, and writing skills to review cases in a high-volume court. I continue to teach public speaking at least one semester a year at the University of Wisconsin Law School, and I have remained active in the American Bar Association. The fact that I have two days off each week has made teaching and volunteering possible. It has also been a great benefit for our family—I can take care of appointments and errands during the week, leaving us more time for fun on the weekends.

I love my current alternative work arrangement. However, as I look back on my career, I’m aware that each time I’ve elected to work less than full time, there have been trade-offs. I certainly make less money than many of my peers, both because I work fewer hours and because I have chosen lower-paying jobs that are especially accommodating to part-time scheduling. In addition, the jobs I have chosen—in part because they offer flexibility—have also been low-profile roles: community outreach, adjunct teaching, and working behind the scenes for an appellate court. To interact with large groups of lawyers and influence the legal profession and society in general, I have had to look beyond my day job, to work with bar associations and other community organizations.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to find employers who were willing to accommodate my desire for alternative work arrangements. As a teacher and a volunteer, I have served as a mentor and sponsor for lawyers at the beginning of their careers, and many have asked me about my experiences. They question whether part-time and other alternative work arrangements are worth accepting and how to pursue them. In response, I share with them my experiences and offer these suggestions.

First, I strongly believe that new graduates need to be prepared to “go hard” the first three to five years after law school. I encourage them to think of those years as their legal residency. Those are the key years to learn how to practice law, to build a network, and to discover the work that interests and excites them. Those are also the years to build a professional reputation. If at the end of those years you’re seen as a competent, committed lawyer, you’ll be more likely to be in a position to negotiate an alternative work arrangement if that is what you desire.

Speaking of desires, my second suggestion is to consider—very deliberately and over a period of months or years—what you hope to accomplish as a lawyer and how that fits in with what else you want out of life. It’s tempting to scoff at the idea of creating five- and ten-year plans, but when you talk with many successful lawyers, you’ll hear how they did just that. Part of that planning process will be to consider whether telecommuting, working part time, taking a sabbatical, or seeking other alternative work arrangements is a high priority for you, and then consider how those desires may be affected by your other aspirations. For instance, if your goal is to be recognized as a brilliant lawyer with a national practice and tons of trial experience, you may find that goal challenging to achieve if you choose to pursue alternative work arrangements. There are examples of people who can dis­prove that proposition, but most would agree that it is difficult to rise to the top of a profession without devoting an extraordinary amount of time and energy to doing so. Once you have deliberately considered and weighed a broad range of goals, you can set about creating a plan for achieving them.

My third suggestion is that if you are considering an alternative work arrangement, be sure to explore the full range of alternative work arrangements before you approach your employer or prospective employer. I have spoken at length here about part-time work, but alternative work arrangements also include changing the times you will start or end your workday, working remotely, taking a year off, periodically taking extended vacations, and a host of other options. A quick Internet search for alternative work arrangements in the legal profession reveals tremendous efforts that the American Bar Association and state, local, and specialty bar associations and law schools have made to explore this issue. Invest time in reviewing the many reports and recommendations they offer before you develop a proposal and approach your employer.

Fourth, remind yourself to be patient. By definition, if you are seeking an alternative work arrangement, you are asking for something outside the norm. You are more likely to get the enthusiastic “Yes!” you’re seeking if you have put in significant time with an employer and shown your commitment to the firm and the profession, as well as your value to the team. By being patient and seeking work that allows you to demonstrate those things, you will put yourself in the best position to get the affirmative answer when the time comes. In addition to being patient and diligent about gaining experience that will make you invaluable, you will also need to be patient during the time it takes for your employer to contemplate your proposal. Frequently, the employer will need to consider how granting your request will affect other employees and whether other employees will be inclined to seek similar accommodations if they are provided to you.

If you are proposing an alternative arrangement to a prospective employer, your preparation needs to be significant, as it is rare to find a job advertised that offers part-time hours, telecommuting, or other alternative arrangements. You’ll be selling your skills and qualifications and, at the same time, making the case why the employer should approve an alternative arrangement from the outset.

Finally, my advice is to be grateful. If you are fortunate to secure an alternative work arrangement, appreciate that you have been offered an opportunity that is not available to everyone. Be sure to regularly evaluate whether it continues to work for you and for your employer, and make adjustments proactively as needed.

Christina Plum is a senior staff attorney at the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and served as one of the Section’s managing directors for the 2018–2019 Bar Year.

This essay was originally published in 2017 in Her Story: Lessons in Success from Lawyers Who Live It.

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