BY MARCI ALBOHER, L Magazine, Summer 2000

As a 3L, Elana Butler was in the unusual position of shopping for maternity clothes while most of her classmates were buying interview suits. And upon graduation she did something even more unusual. She went to work for a large firm on a three-day-a-week schedule so that she could spend time at home with her young son. Now, after nearly 20 years of juggling work and motherhood, she has done what many thought was impossible: She made partner while working on an entirely part-time schedule.

Chances are, if you’re like most twentysomething law students, the only balancing you’re thinking about has to do with your checkbook and your party-to-work ratio; but 10 years from now, you may find yourself thinking about how to manage the pressures of being a lawyer with the demands of raising a family. For Butler, now a partner at Proskauer Rose in New York City, that meant working three or four days a week. As she explains, “for most of the world other than lawyers I’m working a full-time job, ostensibly in four days.”

Even today, Butler is in the minority. According to “The Unfinished Agenda,” a report from the ABA’s Commission on Women, 90 percent of the firms it surveyed allowed part-time schedules but only 3 to 4 percent of lawyers at those firms actually use them for fear of hampering their chances of advancement. But it’s possible Butler is part of the beginning of a trend.

According to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), 43 percent of associates leave their firms within the first three years–and the rate of attrition is three to seven points higher for women than for men in firms of all sizes. Losing junior associates just as they are becoming profitable is a serious concern for law firms, and they have tried to address this growing problem through salary increases. But for many attorneys, a pay hike isn’t solving their dissatisfaction with law firm life. So firms have started looking to other factors such as quality of life.

The Project for Attorney Retention (PAR), an initiative of the Gender, Work and Family Project of American University’s Washington College of Law, was launched last year to help D.C.-area law firms develop programs to recruit and retain attorneys through policies that address the issues of work-life balance. The project’s co-directors, Cynthia Calvert (who runs her own private practice) and Joan Williams (who is a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law), say their efforts are different from the “mommy track” movement that swept corporate America during the late ’80s. The problem with those programs, says Calvert, is that “if you work in one of them, you are stigmatized, and you are in a career-ending position: You won’t get the best assignments; you’ll miss out on advancement opportunities; and you may not even get the proper pay for the work that you’re doing.” In contrast, PAR’s ultimate goal is that “the stigma will be removed as the myth that you can’t work part time in the law is removed.”

U.S. law firms are generally built around what Williams calls the “ideal worker”–one who never takes off work, can work overtime, and can travel or relocate at the drop of a hat. But for people who do not equate professional success and satisfaction with logging 80 hours a week at the office, that model just doesn’t work. PAR is looking to the best practices of European law firms as well as corporate America to help law firms solve this dilemma. Calvert cites the prevailing system used by English law firms as an admirable one: Lawyers regularly take four to six weeks of annual vacation, and, if they want additional time off, they can buy that from the firm. “It’s very accepted, and no one frowns on it,” she says. She also thinks law firms can learn from other professional services firms such as Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young, which have made great strides with programs offering professionals the choice of trading money for time off.

Jonathan Gass and his wife, Sophie Van Wingerden, have done just that. Two young lawyers with stellar credentials, they realized that if they took advantage of the flexible schedule programs offered at their law firms, (he works reduced hours in the litigation area of Cleary Gottlieb; she works fixed hours in the Global Collateral Group at Davis Polk), they would be able to be more involved in caring for their three children. As Gass sees it, “the profession will have to change with the growing number of dual-career couples. Men are parents too–so on one level we shouldn’t call this a women’s issue. But the social reality is that more women take reduced-hours schedules than men.”

PAR’s aim is to have these programs available for any reason, not just for caring for family. “We’re moving away from this as a ‘mommy’ thing,” says Calvert. “There is virtually no difference between male and female attorneys in choosing a balanced life.” And she’s heard many stories of attorneys working reduced hours to pursue other interests like teaching, traveling, or training for a marathon.

Some law firms have figured out that offering flexible schedule programs is not only good for their lawyers, but good for their image as well. Shearman and Sterling grabbed headlines at the end of 1999 when it announced that it would consider lawyers on a part-time or flex-time schedule for partnership and named two women partners as part of that program.

Many law firms are amenable to part-time schedules as long as the lawyers who use them understand they are removing themselves from a partner track; for lawyers not interested in partnership, such arrangements are ideal. According to one senior associate at a mid-size firm, “part time is the perfect solution for me and for the firm. Working three days a week allows me to spend meaningful time with my daughter, yet I don’t need to give up the stimulation and interaction with professional colleagues I so enjoy as a lawyer. The firm also wins since even at three days a week, I’m worth much more to them because of my extensive experience in our practice area.” Plus, she says, working part time keeps her foot in the door and puts her in the best position to get back on track to be considered for partner if her goals change (her firm won’t consider lawyers for partner unless they work a minimum of four days a week).

To the non-legal world, law firm lawyers are often viewed as crazy for working the kinds of hours more typically associated with medical residents. And generally, they are not saving lives. “It’s only been in the last several decades that law has started to be practiced on a 60- to 80-hour-a-week schedule,” says Calvert. “It used to be much more relaxed; 30 to 40 hours a week was considered full time. There is nothing magic about the law that says you have to work 80 hours to be good at what you’re doing.”

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