Flextime doesn’t have to be a professional dead-end
By Marci Alboher, New York Lawyer, Summer 2001
Nora Plesent was a pioneer in the flexible schedule movement. As a mother of two young children, she began working part-time in 1992 at litigation boutique Kostelanetz, Ritholz, Tigue & Fink. In 1994 she became a partner at the firm, then known as Kostelanetz & Fink, and a year later was mentioned in a Wall Street Journal article about “a tiny but growing number of lawyers” whose firms were accommodating their requests for part-time arrangements. “It was pretty unheard of in those days,” she recalls.
It’s still pretty unheard of. On April 27, 2001, the ABA’s Commission on Women released a report on the status of women in the profession. The report cited a National Association for Law Placement survey of 675 firms in which 94.5 percent reported having programs in place for lawyers wanting to work flexible schedules. That sounds encouraging until you realize that only 3 percent to 4 percent of the lawyers at those firms actually take advantage of those schedules. (The statistics for flexible schedules at New York City firms – and the lawyers who use them – echo the national ones almost exactly.)
While there are no statistics on exactly who is taking advantage of these programs, the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that of those few lawyers working part-time, the vast majority are women, who now comprise almost 30 percent of the legal profession and about half the entering class of law school students. Working women generally carry the major burdens of childcare, even in dual career families; one solution working mothers have found for trying to solve the work-family conundrum is to work part-time or flex-time. That’s not to say the occasional male lawyer doesn’t make the same decision about limiting working hours to focus more on family (or that there aren’t other reasons besides family for pursuing an alternative arrangement). But in the still-conservative world of law firms, it remains more common for a man to take a sabbatical to write a book or run for political office than take off Fridays to spend time with his kids.
Defining the Terms
When Plesent went part-time, she felt extremely isolated. To reach out to others, in 1992, she co-founded the LAAWS (Lawyers Advocating Alternative Work Schedules) Group, a network committed to helping part-time lawyers manage the issues they faced. That network, which is still thriving today, led to her current career. In 1996, she left Kostelanetz & Fink to become a legal recruiter specializing in finding positions for candidates who are looking for “flexible work arrangements” – the term she’s chosen since she feels it’s broad enough to encompass the different ways lawyers modify their schedules. There are part-time schedules (e.g. three days a week), flex-time arrangements (40 hours but not necessarily 9 to 5 five days a week), regulated hours positions (9-6 five days a week), contract situations (paid for hours worked), and even among these general categories, many variations exist. From Plesent’s point of view, “flexible work arrangements” also covers telecommuting and job sharing.
Of course, one major challenge for lawyers seeking to modify their work schedules is that law firm hours are so all-consuming to begin with that when they are cut down a bit, it doesn’t always feel like part-time. It’s a challenge that’s compounded as career advancement leads to increased responsibilities. “For most of the world I’m working a full-time schedule, ostensibly in four days,” says Elana Butler, a partner at Proskauer Rose who has worked part-time her entire career. “And as I became more senior it became even harder [for me] to respect the boundaries.”
According to Helene Ashenberg, a legal recruiter with Solomon-Page Group Ltd., “The blame isn’t entirely on the law firms. Law firms are much more willing to negotiate part-time arrangements than they were five or 10 years ago, but so many women lawyers come to me seeking in-house positions because they have tried the part-time route in a law firm and it hasn’t worked.” The situation Ashenberg says she sees again and again is this: A woman will cut a deal to work four days a week and take a 20 percent cut in pay. After a while, her hours start creeping back up and “the end result is that 80 percent work for 80 percent pay often turns out to be 80 percent pay for the same amount of work. Itís just not what she bargained for.”
Even though law firms at least pay lip service to flexibility by allowing modified schedules, a certain stigma persists for those who opt to work less. Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, author of the book “The Part-Time Paradox”, says that some people are so grateful to have a part-time arrangement that they are willing to pay a high price whether itís in the form of a limit in their career trajectory, a lack of inclusion, or other unpleasantness like snide comments or little digs that tell them they aren’t considered to be regular and honored members of the firm. “Part-time gives the impression that it takes up only part of your brain, but itís not that at all,” says Proskauer’s Butler.
As a result, lawyers on flexible schedules often end up working harder because they feel they have to prove themselves. They also need to be very efficient during their working hours, which means that a lot of the downtime and hanging out that makes the day enjoyable must be sacrificed. Plesent says that the employers she works with report getting more out of part-time lawyers since they find them to be extremely loyal and efficient. But in harder economic times, it appears unlikely that that loyalty will be rewarded. “When business declines, as it did in the early ’90s, part-time attorneys are especially vulnerable,” writes Epstein in “Part-Time Paradox.” Ashenberg concurs, noting that in tough times, part-time lawyers are the first to go since firms are more likely to keep their full time lawyers and work them harder. “And the lawyers will do it because they are just happy to have a job,” she adds.
How to Make It Work
Despite the challenges of working part-time, some lawyers have been successful in creating satisfying alternative work arrangements. A central element of ensuring that success, they say, is maintaining a high standard of professionalism. As Moira Schneider Laidlaw, who has worked part-time and as a project lawyer at both large and small firms, puts it, “I always feel like I have to act with integrity and responsibility with regard to my days at work from home – answering the phone on the first ring, responding immediately to e-mail – because if people didn’t believe I was actually working from home, then the arrangement would end, not only for me but for anyone else at that company or firm who requests a flexible schedule.”
Connie Fratianni, who became a partner at Shearman & Sterling in 2000, when the firm announced that it would consider part- and flex-time lawyers for partnership, points out that “Saying you can’t work past 5 p.m. or being tied to a train schedule are problems.” So part-time lawyers find themselves logging in more hours than they expect to, and then taking off time between deals or in slower periods.
At the same time, lawyers on a flexible schedule also need to be good at setting boundaries and showing respect for the schedule they set up. “You have to be willing to stand up and believe in yourself for what you deserve,” says Plesent. Kevin Lastorino says his entire day is organized around trying to keep to his regular working hours. “The 5:30 hour creeps up very quickly when you are used to working until 8:30 or 9,” he says. “I start the day with specific goals in mind, knowing that I’m trying to leave by 5:30. The deal is the same level of responsiveness to clients. There’s still the occasional late evening but my regular schedule is to get home for dinner.”
Another key element in making flexible arrangements work, particularly for associates, is a supportive supervisor and colleagues willing to cover. A good secretary can’t hurt either.
Finding the Right Firm
Once making the decision to jump off the full-time track, the tricky part can be finding a firm willing to be flexible and open-minded. The conventional wisdom is that it is much easier to go part-time at a firm where you’ve already built up good will, than to start a new relationship on something less than a full-time basis. But that is changing. “Years ago, if you weren’t already on a flexible schedule and you wanted to go part-time, there were no prospects – now, it’s more common to make a lateral move directly to a flexible schedule, whether or not the lawyer had one before,” says Ashenberg.
And there’s no clear-cut answer to the big versus small firm quandary. Large firms tend to have formal policies and are more concerned about being fair and uniform in their practices. Smaller firms do things more on an ad hoc basis. With any size firm, Plesent recommends that lawyers do their diligence on such issues as whether the firm has a track record for part-timers and how they have handled partnership issues. “The most important thing is not to enter a flexible work situation that is doomed to fail from the outset,” says Laidlaw. “For example, I wouldn’t recommend working at a place where someone has said they are ‘making an exception for you.’”
For those who stick it out, partnership on a part-time track is a little less rare than it was when Plesent took the plunge. Yet it still grabs headlines. In January 1999, Shearman and Sterling announced that it would consider lawyers who worked flex- or part-time schedules for partnership, and it made news. But Shearman hasn’t been the only pioneer. Butler recently made partner at Proskauer Rose after a 20-year career working exclusively part-time.
Not all lawyers working flexible schedules are interested in partnership. For those willing to accept some uncertainty about their career path, there are many choices available. Plesent says lawyers are accelerating and decelerating their work schedules based on what is going on in their life, with some choosing to take a permanent reduced hours position, others doing contract or project work, and some even trying their hands at solo practice some portion of their careers. “The more flexible you are, the more options there are,” she says. Melanie Finkel, a senior associate at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner, for example, is perfectly content with her four-day-a-week arrangement and has no regrets that she’s removed herself from consideration for partnership. It allows her to spend time with her three-year-old son, and she says she made the choice not to pursue both at this time. Plus, it leaves her the option to put herself back “on track” if she should choose to do so in the future.
If Plesent was a pioneer 10 years ago, perhaps today’s trailblazers are lawyers like Jonathan Gass and Sophie Van Wingerden, a married couple who came up with a novel, but practical solution to the work-family dilemma. They both decided to modify their work schedules in order to spend more time taking care of their three children. “We both thought we had a responsibility to each other to take some of the child-care burden, but we both also wanted to continue in our careers,” says Gass. “The bottom line is that it was about the art of the possible – and for us, it was possible for us both to work on a flexible schedule.”