Lawyers won’t have to be slaves to the billable hour for much longer, according to the panel of experts participating in “Flexing the Workplace,” a roundtable discussion held in the New York offices of Davis Polk & Wardwell and sponsored by the National Association of Women Lawyers.
Timed to coincide with NAWL’s annual awards luncheon and the release of its study, “Actions for Advancing Women Into Law Firm Leadership,” the panelists emphasized that now, more than ever, law firms must begin offering more flexible work schedules to its lawyers. If not, they risk losing the young crop of talent needed to secure a successful future.
Why the urgency? According to Patricia Gillette, a San Francisco partner in employment law at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, waves of baby boomers soon will be retiring from partnership positions, and when that happens, law firms will be hard-pressed to replace those lawyers.
“Law firms are going to feel the push from Generation X and Generation Y lawyers who want a different life,” says Gillette, the mother of two.
She expects law firms eventually will follow the lead of the technology industry and provide alternative work schedules–including more telecommuting arrangements, job shares, and part-time schedules.
“We are driving change through competition,” says Deborah Epstein Henry, the founder and president of Flex-Time Lawyers.
Henry, a former associate at Paterson, Belnap Webb & Tyler in New York and Schnader Harrison Segal and Lewis in Philadelphia, consults with law firms on developing new policies. She also coordinates Working Mother Magazine’s annual survey of the top law firms for female lawyers.
“Firms know if they want to recruit talent, they may need to change,” Henry says. And women lawyers aren’t the only professionals demanding this change, she notes, pointing to the Stanford Law School students who last year launched “Building a Better Legal Profession” -a group demanding firms cut billable hour requirements to improve associates’ lifestyle—were men.
“These issues apply to anybody,” says Bryan Townsend, a summer associate at Davis Polk and third year student at Yale Law School. Townsend–engaged and planning to start a family in the next few years–came to watch the panel because he says work-life balance will figure into his choice of employers.
But others were skeptical that there could be drastic changes in the culture at law firms where overtime is a way of life.
“You have to be willing to sleep on the floor of your office to get the good cases,” lamented Marsha Redmon, who worked for six years at both a major law firm and small boutique practice. She now runs MGroup Communications to help lawyers and business professionals develop media skills.