Law Firms Take on Work/Life Balance Issues

justice_scales.gifIt used to be that big law firms were the old guard of the inflexible work day. Tied to the holy grail, the universal unit of measurement – otherwise known as the billable hour – law firms were late adopters of work-life balance innovations like flex-time and part-time schedules for working moms. But as the number of hours billed by the average associate crept up from 1600, flying past 1800, scooting by 2000 with little fanfare, and sneaking across the line of 2200, the misery quotient of young lawyers of both genders went up and so did attrition rates, particularly of female associates, who viewed life at a big law firm as incompatible with the possibility of starting a family.

A widely circulated article in the New York Times earlier this month, called “The Falling Down Professions,” documented the rising dissatisfaction and falling prestige of lawyers (and doctors), observing that more young people that ever aspired to the get-rich-quick ideals of jobs in finance, or the flexibility and creativity of entrepreneurship, without the years of arduous professional training and comparatively lower paychecks of “the professions.”

One step that big law firms in major markets have taken in recent years is to give associates raises: big ones. When the Class of 2006 was working as summer associates, they were looking forward to joining firms at the not-too-shabby salary of $120,000 per annum. After they got back to school for their 3L year, they got some good news: salaries had been increased to $135,000. By the time these lucky new lawyers started their first grown up jobs, starting salaries for first year associates had risen to $160,000. Said one Harvard Law grad upon hearing the news of yet another raise before he had logged a single billable hour, “I feel like I won the lottery!”

Unless by “winning the lottery,” he meant that he took the little known third option – not the lump sum or the lifetime payout — but the one in which he worked 80-100 hours per week until his brain imploded into a pile of cynical sludge.

The NYT article also described the steps that law firms were beginning to take to address the disillusionment of young lawyers with the legal profession. One firm unveiled a “happiness committee,” tasked with delivering milkshakes and candy apples to weary lawyers. Perhaps, the theory went, if they could mimic the atmosphere of a small town carnival or state fair, the lawyers wouldn’t be so eager to get off the merry-go-round. Though, in all fairness, these naïve but well-intentioned efforts at buying happiness on the cheap are not limited to law firms.

A good friend who worked at a major investment bank in Manhattan once told me a story about how his firm had hired “happiness consultants” to hold an open meeting with employees in a particularly disgruntled group about what the bank could do to increase employee satisfaction. Some analysts had banded together in a sad little effort at white collar unionizing and had launched a plan to tell the purveyors of happiness that they wanted bigger bonuses and shorter hours. When raised at the meeting, this suggestion was met by the consultants with thoughtful frowns and concerned scribbling in their notepads. Then, one of the most beaten down of the young analysts raised his hand. In a weary, sleep deprived voice, he said, “You know, I think I would really like it if we could have ice cream in the cafeteria. And not just vanilla and chocolate, but lots of different flavors that changed all the time.” The consultants jumped up as if IEDs had exploded under their chairs.

“Done and done!” they exclaimed as they exchanged triumphant looks and adjourned the meeting. Upon retelling this story, my friend lamented, “he sold our souls for Ben and Jerry’s.”

Alas, its not that easy to buy the happiness of corporate analysts and law firm associates. This November, Cravath Swaine & Moore tried a more direct tactic, offering their associates an additional $10,000 “special bonus” this year, in addition to the standard $35,000, and most other major law firms in New York quickly followed suit.

But is it working? The author of the “Falling Down Professions” article thought not, citing an American Bar Association Study conclusion that 44% of lawyers would not recommend their profession to young people and a precipitous decline in the number of law school applications in recent years.

However, a January 24, 2007 New York Times article by Lisa Belkin called “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms,” seems to indicate that law firms have realized that having an overworked and depressed population of associates is not good for the firm or human development in the long run. Firms are taking a hard look at their ways of doing business, from the billable hour to the partnership track.

Deborah Epstein Henry, who was quoted in the article, said, “There are things happening everywhere, enough to call it a movement. The firms don’t think of it as a movement, because its happening in isolation, one firm at a time, but if you step back and see the whole puzzle, there is definitely real change. Ms. Henry’s insights into work/life balance issues were highlighted in a previous Glass Hammer article that profiled the New Directions program for lawyers returning to the profession at Pace Law School.

Ms. Henry has developed a creative proposal for reforming the billable hour, called FACTS. The acronym stands for different flexible work options that lawyers can elect. Fixed (less high-profile assignments, more regular hours), Annualized (feast or famine bursts of activity followed by lulls), Core (blocking out time for work and personal life), Targeted (an agreed upon annual goal of hours, tied to compensation), and Shared (a mix between these strategies). The plan has gained some traction, mostly at small to mid-sized firms in secondary markets like Raleigh, North Carolina and Dallas, Texas. But lawyers in Chicago and Washington D.C. are also making flex-time friendly changes and New York and Los Angeles firms are paying close attention to these trends.

This trend towards increasing the options that associates have to control their schedules early in their careers has far reaching implications, not only for women and working parents, but for the legal profession as a whole. The NYT article quoted Lauren Stiller Rikleen, director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success. She said, “What’s happening not is not just about the needs and demands of women.”

0 Response

  1. Great article: this validates that the latest buzzword in the workplace today — “work/life balance” — is permeating the core of the more work-devout professions. The movement towards work/life balance has long existed; that is, outside the United States. Our friends across the Atlantic have enjoyed the fruits of their labor in the form of less work hours, flexible work schedules, more vacation days, and sometimes a combination of the three! It appears that U.S.-based employers are slowly realizing that “more” is not necessarily “better”.

    Due to growing demands for more balance in their lives, prospective employees no longer inquire about the formerly fashionable “stock options” or “vested pension” plans.

    The saving grace for the Corporates and professional service firms when trying to attain and retain talent is the “personal concierge”. Personal concierges (or personal assistants) are not the luxury service available to the uber-rich anymore. Employers are realizing the benefit of happy employees by outsourcing this solution to a “corporate concierge service”. Even the “everyday Joe” can afford this service, which ultimately helps everyone earn back the greatest of all commodities: time.