- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

An American University law professor and a District of Columbia lawyer have started a program to convince area law firms to improve their part-time policies.
The pair held the first meeting of the Project for Attorney Retention last week and will interview working mothers over the next year to assess firms' work-life policies. They contend that although some firms have part-time options, many lawyers particularly mothers do not use them because they believe their careers will be compromised, and they will fall off the partnership track.
The issue is not exclusive to law, but striking the work-life balance can be especially tough in that field, said Joan Williams, an American University professor and co-director of the university's Project on Gender, Work and Family.
"Law in many ways is behind the curve," she said, because of the customary long hours and set partnership track. The retention project will use interviews and a survey of local lawyers to create models for alternative schedules that Ms. Williams hopes firms will adopt.
She said the principals at some firms have expressed interest, but it is too early to tell if they will accept the recommendations on part-time employment. About 20 lawyers attended the meeting last week, discussing the work-life balance issue enthusiastically and sometimes painfully.
Cynthia Thomas Calvert, the project's co-director and a lawyer in private practice, said salary increases at law firms in recent years are not enough to attract and retain good talent.
"They need to change the requirement that attorneys commit themselves to the firm 24-7," she said at the meeting.
Area firms are beginning to catch on, and others have had part-time policies in place for many years.
Michael Nannes, deputy managing partner at Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, said salaries have shot up in the past few years because of the low unemployment rate. At his firm, starting lawyers can receive $125,000 a year.
"Absolutely, you've got to do more than just pay money," he said.
"There's so much work in law firms that to attract people was becoming more and more difficult," said Jane Hruska, director of legal personnel at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering.
Firms not only compete with other firms, but also must contend with the flexible schedules offered by technology companies that need staff counsel.
It's not unusual for lawyers to work 2,000 billable hours a year, not counting time spent in meetings or reading to keep up to date on cases. That can translate into working between 60 and 80 hours per week.
Some lawyers are rebelling against that standard because it can diminish quality of life and family time.
"There's a tremendous pool of talent out there who want to work a few fewer hours," Mr. Nannes said.
At his firm, about a dozen associates and five partners have part-time arrangements out of about 255 in the D.C. office. The part-timers may be slowed down in consideration for partnership, but the opportunity for promotion is still there, Mr. Nannes said.
And at Wilmer Cutler, five associates and counsel, and two partners work part time.
Ms. Hruska said flexible arrangements help the lawyers feel they are part of the firm, not just a cog working for someone who does not care about their welfare.
Ellen Jakovic is one example. She began working part time at White & Case in April after a nine-month maternity leave after the birth of her second child.
Ms. Jakovic was the first lawyer to go part time at her 70-lawyer office, and she found she had to work out a plan with her managers because of the firm's ambiguous policy.
"There is a policy, but it's not very detailed," she said.
She works 60 percent of the 2,000 billable hours typical at her firm and gets paid 60 percent of her former salary.
But while working part time, she will not be considered for partner, a factor she said dissuades other lawyers from working reduced hours.
She also said she probably will end up working more than the 100 hours a month she has arranged with her supervisors but she will be paid for that work at the end of the year under a "look-back" provision.
Ms. Jakovic, and other lawyers working part time, said going to managers with a clear plan is essential.
"Kids come out of law school and firms are really dying for good talent, and young attorneys really don't have to sell themselves," she said. Learning that skill makes good business sense, she added.
Another lawyer who declined to be named said she approached her superiors with a part-time proposal about six months after the birth of her first baby. She set out the number of hours she would work and how the clients would be handled.
She had been working 60 to 70 hours a week and caring for her new baby.
"I just basically felt overwhelmed. I felt like I wasn't doing a good job with anything," she said.
Now she works on a reduced schedule of 45 hours a week, still what employees in other fields might consider overtime. But she said the schedule has allowed her to balance raising her child with working.
She now makes $80,000 instead of the little more than the $100,000 she earned before, and will be set back a year in partner consideration.
But she said it's worth it.
"That amount of peace of mind has allowed me to be far more productive," she said.

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