More Flexibility Necessary for Attorney Retention

iStock_000008227662XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“The Project for Attorney Retention’s mission is to reduce unwanted attrition of lawyers,” explained Manar Morales, PAR‘s Executive Director. One particularly sore spot for attorneys (male and female), she explained, is the issue of work/life balance. PAR was founded by Cynthia Calvert and Joan Williams to address these issues. “One of our hallmarks is to create best practices for law firms around research,” she said.

“Women are graduating law school in record numbers, but they’re not making it into the partnership ranks,” Morales explained. “It’s not a pipeline issue, but a retention issue.”

“Work/life flexibility is important for women and men, and as long as this is solely a women’s issue progress is going to be slow,” she added. According to Morales, flexibility is a key issue for retaining diverse attorneys – and as the business case for diversity becomes more well-known, firms will have to respond with more flex opportunities.

Diversity and Flexibility

“The legal profession needs to become more diverse and inclusive and flexibility is an important component of that,” Morales said.

She continued, “Firms are currently going through a war for talent and clients are increasingly demanding diversity. They see the connection between inflexibility and attrition – and it comes at a high cost, not only to firms but to clients as well. Firms see it in the business case for diversity.”

A 2009 PAR report entitled “Diversity and Flexibility Connection: Best Practices” [PDF] pointed out just how many diverse lawyers are looking for flexibility. It says:

“When PAR and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association sent an outreach requesting to speak with attorneys of color about work/life balance, one in four respondents interviewed said that they worked part-time.

In addition, some respondents who worked full-time hours stated that, although they would like to reduce their hours, the stigma associated with part-time at their firms made that unrealistic, when combined with challenges faced by all attorneys of color. Moreover, 70% of women of color attorneys are the sole or primary breadwinners in their households.”

As the business case for diversity becomes more recognized, flexibility will become an important issue for retaining female and minority attorneys. In the mean time, Morales said, convincing senior staff of the business case is key.

“One of PAR’s initiatives on the client front is making that diversity and flexibility connection. We’ve always led with the business case – discussing that flexibility is the way to retain top talent.” Morales said that for individuals looking to improve flexibility within a firm, it’s also helpful to mention the cost of attorney attrition and to point out that losing a team member affects client relations as well.

Morales also emphasized the Balanced Hours Model, which PAR created. PAR’s website explains, “Balanced hours schedules are individually tailored reduced hours schedules designed to meet the needs of the attorney and the needs of the Firm and its clients.”

Tips for Succeeding and De-Stigmatizing Flexibility

While Morales said that advice on implementing a flexible schedule be found in PAR’s book published earlier this year, Flex Success: The Lawyer’s Guide to Balanced Hours, written by Cynthia Thomas Calvert and Joan C. Williams, she shared a few key points with The Glass Hammer.

Morales explained that, frequently, lawyers who take on flex schedules are considered less invested in the success of the firm or in business development. “For this reason, we encourage part time lawyers to be leaders and rainmakers at their firms,” she said.

“Successful lawyers are crucial for firms to be successful, and to retain top, diverse talent,” she continued. That’s why firms and lawyers must work together to destigmatize flex or part time work.

Being successful as a part time lawyer takes planning, Morales said. “Build time in to your work schedule. It’s important to include non-billable hours when you’re planning – they are critical for business development, enhancing your expertise, or networking.”

She continued, “Otherwise you’ll start to experience schedule creep. Another tip is that if exceeding billable hours goals is important to your success at your firm, set your goal a little lower so you’re always exceeding them.”

Finally, she said, “Many firms are structured so that you have to be available for emergencies. If you start too experience ‘too many’ emergencies, be proactive about addressing the issue.”