Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

Reduced Hours Programs: A Talent Management and Wellness Strategy ~ By Judge (Ret.) Mary McClatchey

While reduced hours programs are widely viewed as an important talent management strategy for law firms, a new study underscores their role in supporting the overall health and well-being of attorneys. Law practice is a uniquely high-stress profession. In fact, according to a 2016 landmark study commissioned by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 28 percent of lawyers have mild to severe depression; 21 percent qualify as problem drinkers; and 19 percent demonstrate symptoms of anxiety. These alarmingly high rates of mental health distress are greater than those experienced by other professionals.

As we all know, attorneys meeting a “full boat” hours requirement have little time for family and friends. Those who do carve out time for a personal life usually do so by sacrificing sleep. For many, this lifestyle can be unsustainable. The ABA study results are thus no surprise.

Individuals in jobs that leave insufficient time for family and other important people have a 50-percent higher incidence of depressive symptoms, are three times more likely to have high stress levels, and have far lower job satisfaction and intent to stay with their current employer. Further, the absence of work-life balance is a primary source of job stress, according to the American Psychological Association and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Many up-and-coming lawyers, particularly millennials of both genders, are turning to reduced-time arrangements when possible. For attorneys and firm leaders interested in taking a closer look at these programs, here are some best practices.

How Attorneys Make it Work:

Work Five-Day Weeks with Fewer Hours. Attorneys in some larger firms are making the transition to reduced time seamlessly by continuing to work five days a week, thus maintaining easy availability to clients and law firm peers. These attorneys don’t approach reduced time as a rigid daily or weekly arrangement: When the intense work periods come, they are all in; when the work slows down, they know they can cut back accordingly without being penalized. But the fallback norm is to be available for dinner and family on a regular basis, thereby creating a work-life fit that is sustainable for the long run.

Disclose on a Need-to-Know Basis. Many big firm attorneys working on a reduced-time, five-day-a-week schedule see no need to inform either clients or lawyers in other practice groups of their flexible arrangement. This decision mitigates the potentially adverse effects of the “flexibility stigma” on their career development. That said, lawyers need to be transparent with clients about availability.

Choose Your Team Wisely. Another secret of success is to work in a practice group, or at a small or mid-sized law firm, that is openly committed to work-life balance and in which attorneys support each other in achieving this goal. Having everyone on the same page makes it feasible. The CBA Committee for Balanced Legal Careers is focusing on flexible work arrangements at small and medium-sized firms this year and is hosting a brown bag lunch program on the subject at the CBA on September 28.

Wait Until You’re Ready. For attorneys early in their law practice, the timing of a reduced-time arrangement pitch is a crucial consideration. Newer lawyers should gain a level of mastery in their chosen field, and should build champions in the firm who value their work and trust their work ethic, prior to going on reduced time. And, given the steep learning curve for attorneys, it is also advisable to build up one’s hourly rate, revenues and efficiency level to a point where there is no question about profitability for the firm when you make the pitch. Lastly, from day one, lawyers need to learn and cultivate business development skills so that if they later go on reduced time, they will continue to advance toward partnership. That’s the approach taken by Fisher & Philips, according to Denver office managing partner Todd Fredrickson, a panelist at a March 2016 CWBA discussion on reduced time programs.

Prior to the March event, I partnered with the CWBA to survey its membership on reduced hours programs. While 81 percent of the 177 survey respondents were interested in having a program at their firm, only 42 percent had one.

How Law Firms Make it Work:

Many law firms initiated their reduced hour programs to attract and retain women; this is still a strategic imperative. Now, however, they understand that more men like Erik Lemmon, a senior associate at Holland & Hart, go on reduced time to maintain their legal careers, spend time with their children as they grow up and stop sacrificing sleep in the process.

For firms seeking a work culture that is more aligned with the modern workforce, here are some important elements of success:

Proportional compensation. General expectations regarding revenues or billable hours, administrative duties, bar activities, etc. are the same, just proportionally adjusted. One exception: Business origination should be credited at 100 percent.

Hours creep is addressed through a process known as “true up.” Many early adopters got this piece wrong, but firms have learned that this is a critical component of a viable program. One example: If an associate on an 80-percent time arrangement works 100 percent time for a particular month, the firm cuts a check for the extra 20 percent at the end of the month. For partners, this is a more nuanced calculation performed quarterly or biannually. Because some firms are moving toward a revenue-based model of compensation, the formula for addressing hours creep will vary.

Criteria for partnership are clear and transparent for all, including those on reduced-time arrangements.

Men and women are encouraged to use the program for any reason and duration. When firms view their programs as being only for women returning from maternity leave, they achieve few, if any, of their talent goals and aren’t in sync with the modern workforce.

A partner-level program coordinator oversees the program as an administrative duty and serves as a resource to help craft flexible work arrangements and address problems that may arise over time.

Training. Every attorney is trained in how to provide great legal service to clients on reduced time, on the strategic value of the program and on how to make the program successful for all lawyers at the firm.

Looking ahead, firm leaders interested in strengthening their reduced hours programs will have the opportunity to learn more at the Center for Legal Inclusiveness(CLI) November 2016 General Counsel/Managing Partner Roundtable.

Stay tuned; there is surely more to come. D

Judge (Ret.) Mary McClatchey is president of WorkSmart Partners, where she trains and consults with businesses on employer compliance, flexible work strategies and workplace mental health. She can be reached at mary@worksmartpartners.com.

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