Work-Life Balance: Is it Possible to Work Part Time in Big Law?

Work-Life Balance: Is it Possible to Work Part Time in Big Law?

 

        Both the legal industry and large law firms are paying increasing lip service to the idea of "work-life balance." Although work-life balance is rarely defined in concrete terms, it seems to express a fuzzy notion of having time to fulfilling career obligations without compromising the people, interests, and obligations that define life outside of work. Because lawyers in large law firms work so many hours, their ability to maintain work-life balance often hinges on time. Taking note of this time pressure, law firms have begun to offer (and law firm rankings and reports have begun to measure) part-time and reduced schedule arrangements as an opportunity for lawyers to maintain work-life balance in large law firms. But is the availability of part-time work arrangements a legitimate indicator of law firms' support for maintaining work-life balance?

            According to the National Association Law Placement ("NALP"), it is. The "work/ life information" that NALP includes in its law firm profiles focuses almost exclusively on the availability of part-time work arrangements. In addition to listing the number of men and women who work part-time at each law firm office, the NALP data also include information on whether working part-time impacts an associate's promotion to partnership, and on part-time policies for entry-level lawyers, experienced associates, and partners. The only question in NALP's work-life section that does not expressly address part-time work concerns law firms' maternity leave policies. NALP seems to equate work-life balance with opportunities for part-time work arrangements, but should it?

            By listing part-time work arrangements as the almost exclusive metric for a law firm's accommodation of work-life balance, NALP suggests that giving lawyers an opportunity to work part-time is enough. It is not. Tools for achieving work-life balance are useful to the extent that they are available to and used by a broad range of lawyers, and part-time work arrangements are no exception. While I am not aware of any law firms that formally restrict their part-time policies based on sex or family situation, all of the part-time lawyers I have met or learned of from others are women who moved to part-time schedules in order to "balance" work and family obligations. As a soon-to-be lawyer who wants to maintain some semblance of work life balance but does not what children, the anecdotal information about part-time work is disconcerting. It strongly suggests that regardless of how NALP and law firms present part-time work arrangements, these reduced work schedules represent a temporary band-aid for working mothers rather than a legitimate remedy for work-life balance concerns.

To determine whether part-time work arrangements are really the "mommy fix" that the anecdotal data suggest, I decided to look at recent data on who works part-time in law firms, and how law firms treat part-time work and part-time lawyers. I first look at national data from [list sources] to examine who actually works part-time at law firms, and how attorneys and law firms perceive part-time work arrangements. By showing that part-time work arrangements are often stigmatized and seldom used in big law firms, this data supports the conclusion that part-time work is not a sufficient or fully viable tool for lawyers to maintain work-life balance in large firms.

After addressing the national trends in part-time work at law firms, I then turn Southern California firms to see how they compare to the national data. Finally, I examine why so few lawyers work part-time at law firms and consider solutions to make part-time work a useful tool to maintain work-life balance in law firms.

Part-Time Lawyers- National Data

            Although nearly all law firms allow lawyers to work part-time on a formal or case-by-case basis, very few lawyers take advantage of these alternative schedule arrangements. The lawyers who do opt to work part-time are mostly women, and almost exclusively parents. Although attorneys who "need" work part-time to fulfill family obligations sometimes reduce their hours, there is evidence that the stigmatization of part-time work prevents more lawyers from part-time schedule arrangements by limiting their perceived or actual opportunities for advancement. As long as lawyers abstain from working part-time because of stigmatization, and as long as employers take no steps to remedy the stigma, part-time work arrangements cannot be an effective means for lawyers to achieve work-life balance.

            In 2010, 98 percent of law offices listed in NALP's legal directory allowed lawyers to work part-time on a formal or case-by case basis, up from 96.2percent in 2005. Despite the availability of part-time work-arrangements, in 2010 only 6.4percent of attorneys worked part-time.Although this figure is a substantial increase over the 3.5percent of attorneys who worked part-time in 2001 (see figure 1), lawyers are still much less likely to work part-time than other professionals: in 2009, 13.5percent of professionals in engineering, architecture and medicine worked part-time compared to only 5.9percent of lawyers that same year.

While the Southern California data are consistent with the national trend in showing that few lawyers who work part-time are primarily women, they differ from the national data in two ways. First, at 5.7percent the overall percentage of part-time lawyers in Southern California in 2011 is lower than the national figure of 6.4percent in 2010. This difference will likely be more significant once NALP publishes its 2011 national data, as the number of part-time attorneys has steadily increased over the past five years. Second, Southern California part-time figures are skewed more heavily toward women than are the national figures. It's significant, however, that the national NALP data considers a range of law firm sizes, whereas the Southern California data only includes the largest law firm offices. Therefore, the quantitative differences between national and Southern California part-time data could result reflect tendencies based office size rather than geographical legal market. It's beyond the scope of this paper to consider the effect of office or firm size on part-time work. The main take-away, then is that Southern California firms exhibit the same general part-time trends as law firms overall: there are very few part-time lawyers in firms, and most of them are women.

 

Ashley Bowman is a member of Building a Better Legal Profession, (BBLP) an organization based at Stanford Law School.   BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.

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