Recently a male partner said to me that while practicing law in a firm has always been more challenging for women, he believes that today it is almost impossible. This bold statement surprised me – not because I am unaware of the many challenges that women lawyers face but because I look at how far we have come over the past 30 years and cling to the hopeful belief that progress is being made.
When I remember how challenging it was for women to obtain articles or be kept on as associates with the assumption that women would leave as soon as they became pregnant; or the almost complete lack of female role models on the bench or at the partnership table; or the reluctance of some clients to accept that a woman could represent them as competently as a man; or the struggle to return from a short 2 week maternity leave – if you were allowed to return at all; or the overt harassment in the office – there are so many examples of how society and the legal profession have changed to remove many of the barriers that prevented women from becoming partners, general counsels and judges.
I asked this male partner why he thought the challenges for women are greater now than 30 years ago. He said it was simply the dramatic increase in required billable hours. When he started in practice 16 yeas ago, his annual target was 1200 hours. Today it is 1500 in his smaller law firm and 1700 plus at the larger firms. This represents a minimum 25% increase in hours. Targets that were considered full time 20 years ago would today be considered part-time work in many firms.
My colleague went on to say that of the 70 women who graduated from his law school class 16 years ago, he could find only 6 women who are still in private practice. While many are still practicing law, they are working in government or in-house jobs where the hours may be long but they are more defined and there is not the added burden of client development or billing targets to meet.
Current targets make it challenging for any lawyer – male or female to have much time or energy left for family, friends or other personal interests. But with women more likely to be the ones forgoing sleep when their child is sick or putting in longer hours supervising homework, doing laundry, planning birthday parties, cleaning up the kitchen or being the person primarily responsible for taking their elderly mother or mother-in-law to their doctor’s appointments – it is challenging to see how women can fit all of this on top of a 1500 to 1700 hour billable legal practice. And this doesn’t include evening client development events or preparing a paper to give at a conference.
Of course, it is not just women lawyers feeling the increased pressure to record higher hours. Male and female partners feel it too and resent it when associates push back and refuse to work long hours leaving the partner to do the work. However, more and more associates are walking away from law firms rather than sacrifice their health – both mental and physical – to a job that seems to demand all of their time.
The solution to these higher and higher targets has to lie in more flexible work arrangements. This includes everything from tele-commuting to shared or reduced work arrangements.
More and more lawyers – especially women – are looking to reduce their over-heads and commute times and spend more time with their families by setting up virtual offices from their homes. I believe this will become one of the major trends in legal practice for both men and women over the coming years. While blackberries and other technology are a double-edged sword – allowing work to push into personal time – they also give us the flexibility to work away from an office without sacrificing a professional response to client needs.
Many lawyers – both women and men – would happily trade money for more time. However, this requires a greater team approach to support the client where work can be shared – a model which law firms are reluctant to adopt. It also requires a reduction in over-head expenses through sharing office space. The most important component in making reduced hours work is a commitment from the firm leaders to make it work. Part–time work must be supported so that there is no stigma for those who choose reduced hours. Equally important is to guard against schedule creep such that the job becomes part-time in name only.
The National Association for Law Placement (www.nalp.org) in Washington, DC in their book “Solving the Part-Time Puzzle: The Law Firm’s Guide to Balanced Hours” presents a detailed plan showing how firms can remain profitable while allowing lawyers to work reduced hours.
It is not just women lawyers crying out for relief from higher and higher billable targets and increased pressure to work longer in the office. All lawyers and their firms face this challenge. We must look for creative ways to make workloads more manageable for everyone or face a continuous exodus of male and female lawyers leaving law firms and the law in search of a healthier life. It is, I believe, the number one challenge facing the legal profession today.