Published: 2008-03-26

Work Life Balance for Lawyers

With attorneys speaking up about their inability to balance life and work, many firms are beginning to pay attention, offering four options designed to help integrate work and life; but are these options really the solution?

In last year's survey, "In Pursuit of Attorney Work-Life Balance: Best Practices in Management," Susan Saab Fortney, a Texas Tech University law professor, reported that 40 percent of managerial attorneys and 46 percent of supervised attorneys said they would readily swap less money for more free time. In fact, many young lawyers nowadays don't even have the desire to become a partner, because partnership only means more work and less time.

There are many things that can be blamed for making it difficult to incorporate professional and social time, and technology is a major one. In a profession where more hours and more work equal more prestige, many lawyers not only work at the office, but also work at night and on weekends. Some even work on vacation.

However, many firms are becoming aware that the employees who are the most productive are usually the ones who take a break from work every once in a while. For that reason, firms are now implementing options designed to help achieve the perfect balance of work and life, and they are calling these options "alternative work arrangements."

Telecommuting, flextime, part-time, and job sharing are four different alternative work arrangement options that have been implemented in firms across the nation.

Telecommuting involves allowing attorneys to choose a couple of days out of the work week to work from home. Cutting down on both commute times and workplace distractions, this option is thought to be conducive to higher productivity.

Flextime is an option that works well for families where both parents work because it allows lawyers to negotiate their schedules with their superiors. With this option, the beginning and ending hours are modified depending on the lawyer's needs, but the full-time workload stays intact. For example, it may be best for some to begin work at 7 a.m. and get off at 5 p.m., while others may prefer working from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.

The part-time option is probably the oldest alternative work arrangement, giving lawyers the choice of foregoing full-time hours for part-time hours.

Job sharing describes the situation where two part-time attorneys share one position, and there are two ways it can be implemented. The first is the "twins" model. This arrangement has both attorneys working on all of the same cases. The second option, the "islands" model, has both attorneys working together to comprise full-time hours, but working on completely separate cases.

Firms have also begun to offer employees extra incentives such as on-site fitness clubs and child care. Due to a growing majority of professionals who share child care responsibilities with their spouses, options such as these make balancing work and life a lot more convenient.

But if all of these options are being made available, why are many attorneys, young and old, still complaining about the inability to achieve a healthy balance of work and life?

The first and most common explanation is fear. Many times, young lawyers who are told by their firms that these options are available without penalty still feel afraid to take advantage of them. Even though they are unhappy with their workloads, they don't want to choose alternative work arrangements until they have proven themselves in their firms.

Therefore, it is often the older, more established lawyers who are opting for the alternative work arrangements because they have already established themselves and are now less afraid of pursuing a more balanced life.

In addition, even though alternative work arrangements are growing in popularity, many firms are taking their time implementing them, fearing the hassles they may cause in day-to-day operations.

Another problem with these options is that many firms look down on attorneys who choose them. For example, in some firms, lawyers who choose the part-time option are viewed as only being partly dedicated to their jobs and are not chosen for promotion.

In many firms that offer a part-time option, the option is not taken seriously; and lawyers end up with both a full-time workload and the firm's most undesirable work, which completely negates the purpose of opting for the alternative in the first place.

Because of these negative associations and hesitant attitudes, the positive effects of alternative work arrangements have yet to be seen on a national scale. However, with discontent spreading like wildfire in the legal community, lawyers who want a better balance of life and work may soon set their fears aside in exchange for an alternative that makes their life a little more balanced; and firms that drag their heels in offering and honoring these alternatives may be passed over in favor of those that are sensitive to attorneys' needs.