August 01, 2006
For many women, success in law seems to come with a choice: sacrifice family for success or find another job with manageable hours. But while female associates still leave law firms at higher rates than their male counterparts, others are refusing to make this choice. Instead, they are proving that lawyers can be just as successful on a part-time schedule—even achieving the rank of partner.
Alison Bauer is one of these women; she has worked part-time since 2001. Alison came to Torys when she was five months pregnant and seeking reduced hours. “Along with switching firms," she says, "I had to negotiate my part-time issue at the same time." Although there had, in the past, been some Torys attorneys with special arrangements, Alison was the only associate seeking a part-time arrangement for a family matter. Through trust and mutual respect, Alison negotiated a 60 percent schedule in 2001. Then when she was promoted to partner last February, she moved up to a 75 percent work schedule. “The firm had to have a lot of faith in me to believe that I would come back from maternity leave and meet the expectations of the firm on a part-time schedule.”
Alison and those like her say that flexibility and technology are keys to being successful in a part-time work arrangement. In addition to a willingness to work outside of the office or join last-minute conference calls, partners are taking advantage of technology to stay in touch with the office, while working fewer hours. Alison recalls a funny situation when she had to take a conference call while home with her child, who kept calling for her in the background. Once the call ended, she asked her associate how disruptive it was, and he replied that it was obvious that the sounds were coming from Alison's end because the child kept saying Mama, and Alison was the only woman on the call. "Sometimes it’s hard to plan family time," says Alison, "because you may have to speak to the client when matters are pressing and you don’t know when the next conference call is going to be requested. You are going to have to take the call and I think it creates a higher stress level. As a partner, you have more responsibility to the clients and balancing time can be an issue."
To make the reduced-hour schedule work, partners have to be very disciplined and efficient with their time, which means making personal sacrifices. While not able to partake in informal events that go on after work, Alison attends the critical ones. "You definitely have to pick and choose which social activities you attend,” she says. “I think clients realize that they’re more likely to get a job done efficiently and effectively because I have outside interests. I’m not spending as much time at the water cooler.”
Support, career guidance and networking opportunities are critical, says Alison. To that end, she is a member of the seven-year-old Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, a group of 1900 mostly working mothers juggling career and family--from junior associates to partners. The members meet bimonthly in Philadelphia and New York to discuss topics relating to work-life balance and women in law, and occasionally hear guest speakers. “Flex-Time Lawyers is an invaluable resource for information to find out what the marketplace holds and what competitors are doing or not doing, and to get ideas for policy structure. It’s supportive and empowering to walk into a room and find out that there are 100 other women struggling with the same issues I am."
With more partners working reduced hours, there are bound to be more support groups formed and flex-time policies initiated. Partners stress that it is important that firms realize that less hours does not mean less service.