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Lawyers looking for the right work/life balance

Part-time attorneys more common at today’s firms

Twenty-eight years ago, Claudette Wilson was an anomaly.

Pregnant with twins, the San Diego attorney wanted to continue her work as a third-year associate at Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps.

Despite not having an example to follow, she made an arrangement with management to work three days a week for a year and then four days a week for the next year, becoming one of the first part-time attorneys in San Diego.

"There was a huge sympathy factor," Wilson joked. "They were willing to do anything to help me out."

Today, part-time attorneys are more commonplace -- and not just among women -- as members of the legal profession grapple with finding the right work/life balance.

Claudette Wilson

"I do think more firms are changing and when firms don’t change, people leave," said Jackie Slotkin, a California Western School of Law professor who has written a series of books about work/life balance.

Wilson, now the managing partner of Wilson Turner Kosmo, agreed that firms have to adapt to the changing landscape or risk losing their top talent, especially with more women wanting to balance kids with work.

"If you want to keep women in your ranks as lawyers; you will lose a lot of them if you don't provide flexibility in connection with having kids," she said.

"And there's a real drive by our clients -- by corporate America -- saying we want to see diversity in the people who represent us."

Advances in technology, especially the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, have allowed attorneys to work from home and collaborate remotely.

"It's a transportable profession," Slotkin said.

San Diego attorney Heather Rosing, the chief financial officer of Klinedinst Law, returned to work full-time not long after having her first child in the summer of 2011. She said finding the right work/life balance is different for different people.

For her, it meant cutting back from 60-70-hour weeks to 50-60-hour weeks, no longer working weekends and relying on a great support network.

Rosing said the firm is open to making all kinds of work arrangements with its staff.

Heather Rosing

"I'd say firms have absolutely become more accommodating to work/life balance issues for both men and women with children, and with other considerations in life that mandate a part-time schedule," she said.

Tamera Weisser, a partner with Jones Day and chair of the Lawyers Club of San Diego's balance committee, also said that the definition of work/life balance differs from attorney to attorney.

Weisser, who has a young son, still works the long hours of most lawyers, but gets to the office earlier, so she can leave earlier. It's allowed her to still have quality time with her family.

"It's all about choices and being okay with those choices," she said.

Certain practices -- like litigation -- don't lend themselves to a part-time schedule, however.

Tamera Weisser

"There is no such thing as being part-time when you're in trial," said Los Angeles attorney Samantha Goodman, a solo practitioner, mother of two and the inspiration for Slotkin's books.

Goodman went to a part-time schedule 14 years ago -- even before she became a mother -- simply to avoid burnout. After initially denying her request, Pillsbury Winthrop agreed to her part-time request.

As a transactional attorney working in real estate, she said it's easier for her to work reduced hours and still run a successful practice.

She later worked part-time at two other firms -- DLA Piper and Bryan Cave -- before branching out on her own four years ago. After the birth of her second child, officials at Bryan Cave told her "you can work as much as you want as long as you please your clients," Slotkin recalled, an indication of the changing times. "It wasn't about the number of hours in the office, but keeping clients happy."

Goodman said she had very supportive colleagues at each firm that enabled her to work a nontraditional schedule.

It also helped that she was a fifth-year associate who had built up a book of business and was very knowledgeable at her job.

Weisser of the Lawyers Club said younger attorneys still need to develop a level of trust with the firm's partners before going on a flex schedule or working remotely.

"Once the partners are confident you can get the work done and on time, it's not as important where it's getting done, as long as it's getting done," she said.

Goodman and Klinedinst's Rosing both said it takes a special personality to navigate a successful practice on a part-time schedule.

"The secret to part-timers success is being highly, highly, highly organized," Rosing said, who added that there are several women making it work at Klinedinst. "I see (a part-time arrangement) being highly successful because of the skill, attitude and organization of these women, who are remarkable people.

"I don’t know what days they're in the office but it doesn't matter, because they're always communicating. They're always on top of things."

The challenges for law firms in accommodating part-time attorneys is figuring out partnership eligibility and compensation, considering the cost of certain resources are the same for part-time and full-time employees, including office space and malpractice insurance.

"Probably the biggest challenge firms have is making sure the part-time arrangements are profitable for the firm because they're still running a business," Rosing said. "You have to make sure the costs balance."

Wilson said her firm addresses work/life balance by keeping their hours reasonable. The firm's expectations are for 1,800 billable hours a year, less than the average firm. And when the workload increases, the firm prefers to do more hiring rather than have its attorneys shouldering too much.

Weisser said the discussion about how to find appropriate ways to accommodate a healthy work/life balance need to continue. The Lawyers Club's balance committee regularly holds programs to help facilitate the conversation.

"Work/life balance is on pretty much everyone's mind, irrespective if they have a family," she said.

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