(Standing L to R) Jeanne Runne, Associate General Counsel, Fannie Mae, and Janet Hunt, Associate General Counsel, Fannie Mae
It's one of the most familiar clichés in the business world: "No one ever says on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time at the office." But it wouldn't be a cliché if the words did not have some measure of truth – and the truth is, it's often easier to spout platitudes about working smarter, not harder, than actually leaving the office before the sun sets. Lawyers, especially, are notorious for their grueling schedules – the 40, 60, and sometimes 80-hour work weeks, the early morning depositions and late evening conference calls. It's an arduous pace that has persisted for decades.
But as attorneys today move up the ranks, they are calling into question whether this is the only way to work, or just the tried way. The answer? Resoundingly, the latter. Law firms and departments are slowly but inexorably discovering that the most productive and loyal employees are often those that can occasionally get away from it.
The upsurge of women into the legal workforce has been a contributing factor to this 'new wave' of thinking about how lawyers work. Women – long since the principal caretakers of children, elderly parents and households generally – have had to courageously take on the demands of work and home. But far from being a "woman's issue" only, 68 percent of women and 66 percent of men find it difficult to balance the demands of work and personal life, according to a recent study by Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit company that works to advance women in the workplace.
Technological advances add to this overload of work and personal responsibilities. With the expectation of getting more done, and faster than ever, a frightening number of attorneys not only work long hours at the office, but also take work home, work on weekends, and even while on vacation.
These high-pressure workplace environments and habits are linked to high incidences of stress and related illnesses such as hypertension, addiction and burnout.
Common, too, for many law firms and departments are the high rates of attrition. Unable to balance work and with life's responsibilities, lawyers leave their current workplace or the field of law itself.
"By conservative estimates, it costs a firm $200,000 to replace a second-year associate," reports the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR), an initiative that has studied work/life balance issues in firms and departments since 2000. This estimate includes lost productivity and training, and new hire costs of recruiting, signing bonuses, and training.
Additionally, to this must be added client discontent with turnover. "We have talked with a number of general counsel who have told us it takes [more than] six months for new attorneys…to earn enough trust from the clients that clients feel comfortable working proactively with the attorneys," says Cynthia Calvert, co-director of PAR.
To counter attrition, employers often offer higher salaries. But according to a Harris Interactive and the Radcliffe Public Policy Center study, cited by PAR, "seventy percent of men in their 20s and 30s (compared to only 26 percent of men over 65) said they'd be willing to take lower salaries in exchange for more family time."
A Ready Solution
Alternative work arrangements (AWAs) offer a ready solution. AWAs are practices designed to help attorneys accommodate the demands of life while still remaining beneficial to their firms and departments. Programs are devised to ensure full client-coverage, and effective non-stigmatized programs can save legal offices millions through increased retention rates.
"A program that allows attorneys to balance work and their personal lives without being stigmatized is a win-win for management and attorneys," says Calvert. "It allows law departments to keep highly skilled, experienced attorneys who would otherwise leave due to scheduling pressures."
AWAs increase bottom-line profitability by reducing attrition costs and raising productivity. "We heard reports from attorneys who regularly take two-hour lunches to work out, shop, run errands or play golf in the middle of the day," states Calvert. In contrast, attorneys using AWAs use their flex-time to do these things and report being more efficient and productive during working hours as compressed schedules demand. A number of attorneys reported to PAR that they feel more productive when they have more personal time for an additional reason: When attorneys are more rested and less distracted by pressures outside the office, they perform better in the office.
A number of legal offices nationwide have adopted variations of four core alternative programs: telecommute, flextime, part-time, and job share. To learn more about the merits of each, Diversity & the Bar® spoke with several attorneys about their experiences in these programs.
Telecommuters work from home for part of their work week – thereby cutting out unproductive commute time – while still working 100 percent of their billable hours. The arrangement is convenient in a number of ways, from freeing up an extra hour or two in one's schedule to granting users a work environment free from office distractions.
As with all AWAs, telecommuting is most effective when available to all employees and supported by management. "Three years ago when [Abbott] made it known that it was more amenable to flex-schedules and the Legal Division was developing a policy, I was the biggest advocate on the general counsel's senior staff," says Honey Lynn Goldberg, divisional vice president, Domestic Legal Operations, at Abbott Laboratories. "I thought it was important generally and that for flex-time to be successful, it had to be embraced from the top down or it wouldn't work." Once the policy was approved, Goldberg's department took a multi-step approach to applying it. "We reserved one day, Tuesdays, for core business, such as department meetings," explains Goldberg. "Next, we ensured coverage on all client matters, and then allowed attorneys and staff to select times and days based on their length of service within the department," says Goldberg.
When Vanessa Vargas, litigation counsel at Abbott Laboratories, moved in-house to gain more balance in her life, she also gained an hour and 45-minute commute each way. When the department adopted a flex-schedule policy, Vargas leapt at the opportunity to work from a home office once a week. "I can work during the time I'd normally be traveling. I start earlier and get more done," says Vargas. "For example, I'm working on an Australian case and the other day I conducted a 5:00 a.m. conference call from home without having to get up and be at the office for it."
For Eleanor Cabreré, senior counsel at International Truck and Engine Corporation, and Vinson & Elkins LLP (V&E) senior associate Noelle Alix, life's unexpected curveballs left them with little option but to seek an AWA. "I was prescribed bed rest for the last four months of my pregnancy," says Cabreré. "I made the decision to leave private practice after struggling to balance the demands of my growing family with the rigidity of my work schedule," says Alix. "I tried working first four days a week, then three, but neither arrangement worked primarily because my workload didn't change," she continues, "nor was technology anywhere near where it is today to allow telecommuting to operate as seamlessly. I found myself staying up until 3:00 a.m. just to get the work done."
Though their circumstances were different, technology enabled both attorneys to continue their careers. "My company was extremely supportive and understood that despite my circumstance, I was still able to work," relates Cabreré. "I already had a laptop and was quickly outfitted with full network access, a phone line, fax, and internet access."
With these tools, Cabreré was able to continue working on complicated cases and counsel clients through the end of her pregnancy. Similarly, Alix, who accepted a senior associate's position at V&E and telecommutes almost exclusively from home, has been able to develop relationships with V&E colleagues worldwide via electronic communication. "I've been carving out a niche for myself, including drafting and reviewing opinions on corporate transactions and UCC-related matters."
"Interestingly, I tend to work longer hours and find it easier to concentrate and focus on certain types of projects on the days I telecommute than when I'm in the office," shares Cabreré. "I can avoid idle conversation and the other normal distractions sometimes present in an office environment." Goldberg agrees, adding, "I prefer drafting and reviewing contracts from home, when I have a solid block of quiet time." She continues, "[AWAs] inspire employees' loyalty. If we can do something that attorneys want that doesn't cost the department anything, then it is a good thing to do."
In flex-time arrangements, attorneys coordinate their schedules around their offices' core hours or days. Schedules can be full-time, or a proportion thereof (for example, 20 percent) with relative cuts in salary and benefits. This arrangement is especially beneficial for two-career households. "A wife may start her work day at 7:00 a.m., while the husband gets the kids up and out in the morning," explains PAR's Calvert. "She then leaves the office by 5:00 p.m. and picks the kids up. She works full-time hours, is at the office for core hours, and earns a full-time salary."
Target Senior Counsel Theresa Harris' flex arrangement allows her to work four days a week. "My salary, bonus, and accrued vacation are adjusted to reflect my reduced hours, though I still have full insurance and a 401(k)," says Harris. "After my first child, I started thinking I'd be a lot more focused and high-energy at the job if I had more time away from it," she says. "My boss was adamant that I continue progressing within the department." Harris and her boss drafted a strategy for how the arrangement would work and how Harris' workload would be lessened while retaining stimulating work befitting an attorney of Harris' caliber and experience.
"My work now is dynamic and critical to the company, and I wouldn't want to change it, but I have to be extra vigilant about managing the work," states Harris. Harris works with a paralegal and "an amazing assistant with an incredible gut for how to handle things."
Part-time arrangements are some of the oldest and most common of alternate work arrangements, and perhaps the most prone to stigmatization with its erroneous implications of 'partial commitment.' Yet, Kathryn Carson, vice president and assistant general counsel at PepsiCo, and Cathy Hoffman, partner at Arnold & Porter (A&P), dispel the belief that going part-time will ruin one's career.
Carson worked at PepsiCo for 15 years and was the vice president and division counsel before deciding to work part-time to spend more time with her children. "Rob Sharpe was the general counsel [at that time]. He was very progressive, open-minded, and supportive of my proposal."
Carson, who already had a bench of lawyers working with her, opted not to take any responsibility off her plate. Instead, she supervised and delegated matters to staff attorneys more, working three full days in the office and often taking telephone calls from home on her days off. "It was a good way to train junior attorneys, and there was always someone who knew what I was working on who could cover for me when I was out of the office."
Carson returned to work full-time after 16 months to assume leadership of the legal team supporting Pepsi-Cola's U.S. business. "The break cleared my mind, giving me the opportunity to do things at home and in the community. I came back with a renewed commitment to Pepsi," Carson says. "I have a lot of respect for the company for allowing me to do that."
Three years after making partner, Hoffman began working a part-time schedule when her first child was born. "I didn't have to be persuasive with management because we already had a standard part-time policy that had been in place for years," states Hoffman.
In the 1960-70s, Brooksley Born, then an associate with two kids, worked part-time. Born went on to become the head of the firm's derivatives practice and a partner, serving on the policy committee. "She set a precedent that it is possible for attorneys to work part-time and still be productive," says Hoffman. "As a result, there's now a general acceptance by management and the firm's attorneys of part-time arrangements."
In a progressive step, A&P instated Hoffman as a part-time advisor two years ago. "The firm's management, including Managing Partner Jim Sandman, decided it would be great to have someone attorneys could speak with confidentially about the ins and outs of the arrangement," explains Hoffman.
"If you are in the early stages of your career, [any type of AWA] may be tough because you aren't as established and there is a lot more room for dual-tracking or rejection of your proposal," says Carson.
Job shares involve two part-time attorneys who share one position. The arrangement is generally found in two models: the 'twins' model, in which partners work on the same matters for the same clients, or the 'islands' model in which partners share a full-time equivalent slot, but work completely independent of each other on separate matters.
When Janet Hunt and Jeanne Runne, former general counsel and vice president, respectively, at GE Capital Mortgage Services Inc., proposed a 'twins' job share for the position of associate general counsel at Fannie Mae, the company was quick to realize the immense value of adding either attorney to the team, much less both. "It helped that we were both experienced attorneys in the same field and had worked together before," says Hunt, "because it meant that there wasn't a lot of transition time getting to know the field or each other."
Each attorney works three days a week, with one day as an overlap day to take joint conference calls or brainstorm, providing 120 percent coverage and two heads on all their cases. Communication is critical to any job share's success, and Hunt and Runne use daily transition memos and phone calls to create a seamless team on all matters. "It's amusing….halfway through a phone call, some clients will still say, 'Wait, who am I speaking to today?" says Runne.
Nancy Weiss met Jessica Benson through a series of interviews she conducted for a job-share partner in her corporate counsel position at Pfizer. Weiss' supervisor and colleagues had begun the recruiting process during Weiss' maternity leave. Weiss and Benson each have approximately 10 years of experience in employment law, and quickly realized that they had similar work styles, organization skills, and approaches to legal issues.
They credit these similarities, as well as their openness with clients and frequent communication with each other, to the success of their job share arrangement. "When Jessica first started, I introduced her to all of our clients and we explained the arrangement and how it would work," explains Weiss. Each also scrupulously posts her schedule where their clients can access it, and checks email and voicemail on her days off.
They also use email to keep each other in the loop, and keep detailed notes in each file describing any changes made during the other person's day off. "We tell each other about all matters so that a client never has to re-brief one of us after a meeting with the other," says Benson.
Litigation attorney Antoinette Young has an 'islands' model job share at Sodexho, Inc. Working with a paralegal and an administrative assistant (whom she shares with her partner), Young handles commercial litigation and manages outside counsel. She works two days in the office, and from her home office as necessary. "Most of the documents that I work on are on my laptop, making it easy to operate out of either office, or I work with the actual file," says Young.
Young has learned to maximize her time. "When I sit down before each case, I figure out how to schedule things differently to get the work done within the parameters of my schedule. I combine tasks; there is no wasted time," states Young. "There are times, for example during discovery, when I know my workload will creep up for a short time and I expect that. But I've learned how to manage my cases well to avoid schedule creep generally."
"This is much easier to do later in your career when you are more established and feel more comfortable doing it," she advises. Expressing an oft-heard sentiment among AWA-users, Young continues, "I am at the stage in my career where I've attained many of my long-term goals. I have established myself in my field, and am now focused more on family and my out-of-office life."
Work-to-life balance arrangements offer a win-win situation for both the legal office and the attorney.
Alea Jasmin Mitchell worked for MCCA as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan. She is now the features editor for Diversity & the Bar®.
From the September/October 2003 issue of Diversity & The Bar®