The State of Flexible Work at Law Firms | Working Mother

The State of Flexible Work at Law Firms

At the Working Mother Best Law Firms for Women, attorneys at all levels work from home and with reduced hours—and it’s true for men and women alike.

Lawyers famously (or infamously) work long, hard hours—particularly as associates, when they’re proving their value to firms and hoping to make partner. Flexible hours and work-from-home and part-time programs offer some relief, but only when taking advantage of them doesn’t signal that a lawyer isn’t serious about her work.

The 2017 Best Law Firms list marks the tenth time we’ve celebrated firms that focus on retaining and promoting women; this year’s honorees encourage attorneys of every rank and both genders to work flexibly. How? Deborah Campbell, content and communications manager at Holland & Hart in Denver, says it starts with treating them “like adults. No one wants to micromanage anyone’s hours. We assume everyone is a hardworking professional, meeting client needs.”

Some firms, though, are pro-flex only on paper. “Well over 90 percent of firms offer part-time and similar flex benefits,” says Deborah Rhode, a law professor and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, “but only 6 or 7 percent of lawyers use them because they signal second-class status.” Rhode adds that traditionally, large firms may have had more of a vested interest in retaining partners, whereas for associates, “the attrition rate is really high, and leaders are resigned to losing them if they have competing commitments.”

Letting talented junior lawyers go is hardly ideal. The key to retention, Rhode says, is offering a range of flex options to everyone. “That way, reduced hours don’t translate into reduced status and quality of assignment.”

Remote work is the most popular flex option among both male and female lawyers at every level, and it is offered by all of our top firms.

Ellen McLaughlin, an equity partner in Seyfarth Shaw’s Chicago office, says remote work allows her firm to “get and keep a bunch of talented women”—in particular, staff attorneys who are given the chance to become associates. McLaughlin says it’s part of a global zeitgeist that’s occurring thanks to changing expectations of young lawyers.

Stanford law professor Deborah Rhode says that lawyers must take care to “not be perpetually tethered to the workplace.” This is becoming a bigger concern as technology makes working remotely simpler and more accessible; this year, 17 of the Best Law Firms tell us that every single one of their lawyers works remotely.


Who uses remote work at the Best Law Firms?


Remote work is the most popular flex option among both male and female lawyers at every level, and it is offered by all of our top firms.

Photo: Working Mother

Another big flex benefit is reduced hours, but most of the attorneys using this perk are female staff attorneys and counsel. This isn’t surprising, but at some firms, men are catching up.

Historically, the tricky part has been ensuring that lawyers working reduced hours can still advance. At national firm DLA Piper, almost 10% of lawyers promoted to partner in 2016 were women working a reduced schedule. And at national firm Foley & Lardner, 17% of the most recent associates promoted to senior counsel used it.

At San Francisco firm Hanson Bridgett, 29% of nonequity partners at use reduced hours. Notably, 23% of male nonequity partners are included in that figure. The firm has one of the highest usage rates for reduced hours overall; it’s one of just five Best Law Firms where at least 20% of attorneys work less than full-time.

Another stand-out? At national firm Crowell & Moring, 16% of male associates work reduced hours (compared to 18% of female associates). It’s the only firm on this year’s list where men at that level work reduced hours at a rate in the double-digits.

Also of note: 11% of male equity partners at Indianapolis firm Ice Miller work reduced hours—it’s higher than the 6% of women at the same level who do the same. Meanwhile, 23% of Ice Miller’s equity partners are women, which is higher than the average at the Best Law Firms. Could the firm’s more-equitable flex policy help propel women to the highest rung of partnership?

Who uses reduced hours at the Best Law Firms?


Most attorneys using reduced hours are female staff attorneys and counsel. This isn't surprising, but at some firms, men are catching up.

Photo: Working Mother

Erik Lemmon

Erik Lemmon

Photo: Holland & Hart

A Real-Life Example of Reduced Work

Erik Lemmon, a real estate associate at Holland & Hart, works a reduced-hours schedule to find the balance he lacked when he first had kids (daughter Morgan, 8, and son Ryan, 4). This is an outgrowth of what the firm’s content and communications manager Deborah Campbell calls a “holistically supportive culture.” Partners at the firm take sabbaticals every five years and that, says Campbell, "creates widespread acceptance of taking time off to recharge, and a team effort toward client service." Erik says his flex was possible thanks largely to the firm’s partners. “They’re all parents a little further down the line, and the first thing out of their mouths when I told them what I was thinking was, ‘I totally get it,’” he says.