October 23, 2012

Alternative Work Arrangements: Reexamining the Optimum Fit

Nowadays there are numerous reasons why lawyers of all types may be interested in pursuing part-time, flex-time or family leave options. But, for better or worse, many may find themselves needing to navigate territory that their firms have never had to cover before.

Some years ago I attended a state bar program about part-time lawyering options. While I wasn’t surprised to see a number of women in the audience clearly of childbearing age, I had not anticipated the significant attendance of male lawyers past the age of 55. The composition of that audience clearly illustrated how part-time work options have, over time, come to interest lawyers of both genders and of all ages.

In previous decades, alternative work arrangements were often perceived as primarily a means of accommodating women needing maternity leave or raising preschoolers—but no more. Today, discussion of alternative work and family leave options must be broadened to include a wider range of opportunities for a greater number of participants. This should extend not only to members of both genders, but also to those who are in an early phase of their career, those who are starting to wind down their career, and anyone in between who wants, or needs, something other than “business as usual.” If you’re among the potential participants, here are some things to consider in advance of broaching the topic with your firm.

Changing concerns and policy issues. Lawyers may face a wide variety of challenges that can make full-time work less attractive at different times of their lives. Elder care, child care and other family responsibilities may be involved. Or, the lawyer may want to gear down at the firm to commit more energy to aspirations such as public service or other endeavors. Firms will do well to understand that having leave and part-time policies will increase their level of attractiveness in the market for top legal talent.

Research psychologists studying the impacts of work-nonwork related conflict on employees are finding that measures of the oppositional pulls include emotional exhaustion and negative mood at work, low job satisfaction, absenteeism and turnover intentions—clearly things that should be of concern to employers. So, wouldn’t it be better for an employer to retain a valued employee by providing a part-time arrangement rather than forcing the person to quit or commit to a full-time schedule with a negative impact on performance?

In fact, many large law firms have implemented part-time and family leave policies as part of their efforts to attract and retain the best talent. However, the vast majority of lawyers in private practice work in smaller firms that typically don’t have those kinds of formal policies in place. Lawyers who want such arrangements may learn that their firm chooses to negotiate them on a case-by-case basis.

Resources. There are various resources that can help lawyers and their employers create more-palatable schedule arrangements, but one of the best-known real-world models for how an organization and its employees might together address changes in workplace commitments is the Deloitte model of “Mass Career Customization.” This model, which is detailed in the book Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce by Cathleen Benko and Anne Weisberg (www.masscareercustomization.com), advocates shifting from a one-size-fits-all career model to a custom-made approach. At its foundation, the Deloitte model views a person’s career progression not as a straight climb up the organizational ladder, but instead as a series of moves that may go up, down or across based on where people are at given points in their lives. The framework looks at four core aspects of a career—pace, workload, location and role—all of which can be adjusted, depending on the employee’s aspirations and the enterprise’s talent needs.

More specific to the legal community, the book Law & Reorder by Deborah Epstein Henry focuses not just on employee-related desires for balance, but also the changing dynamics of the profession. Part I discusses shifts to become a work-life-friendly employer and why it is in an employer’s financial interest to do so. Part II is directed to lawyers and law students and includes advice on maximizing productivity and satisfaction, negotiating parental leave, and making flexible and reduced hours work.

Various materials and data are also available from the Center for WorkLife Law (www.worklifelaw.org) at the University of California Hastings College of Law. The center studies family responsibilities discrimination case law and policy and is devoted to improving work-life balance. One of its initiatives is the Project for Attorney Retention (www.attorneyretention.org), whose best-practice balanced hours policy is a standard resource for firms seeking to implement part-time programs.

Knowing your framework: Integration versus segmentation. As you consider various work arrangements, remember that different people view their work lives in different ways. Some are comfortable with a high degree of integration between their work and personal lives, and they will willingly accept work-related calls and take advantage of technology tools on an almost 24-hour basis so they can opt for time away from the office when nonwork-related commitments call. Others prefer a very clear segmentation of their work and personal lives. Still others prefer a blend of those approaches.

If you are trying to negotiate a new work arrangement, it’s important to know where you, and those you care for, fall in this integration framework. Knowing what matters to you most and how you can work effectively within your framework can be key to creating an arrangement that will make you happy and provide the best work product for your employer. And that’s an alternative that works for everyone.