Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

Articles: Organizational Effectiveness Archives

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The Flexible Firm: A Win-Win In Uncertain Times

More and more individuals within firms are calling for more flexibility, and many firms are trying to comply, whether they recognize the economic and cultural advantage to the firm or simply see it as a defensive move to placate associates and retain good lawyers. Some of the ways in which flexibility is being implemented are:

  • flexible hours policies
  • alternative work locations
  • cross-training
  • valuing diverse skills
  • strategic alliances
  • hiring contract lawyers


Hours are probably the most frequent, and often contentious means of flexibility. Many attorneys, men as well as women, have been seeking flexible and balanced hours to be able to spend time with their families or pursue other activities. Women have been the most vocal about it and have much more frequently taken advantage of firm policies that permit reduced hours (about 95% have been women). Another route is an arrangement that may total to what is considered full-time practice but may allow a day off or partial day off, making up the time with longer hours on another day.

According to National Association for Law Placement (NALP) statististics, the percentage of part-time lawyers varies little by geographic location or firm size. Only about four percent of associates take advantage of the part-time policies that most firms claim to make available as an option. I believe there is an inevitability to growth of flexibility policies, and we have only seen the beginning of a change in the way we look at work and life balance.

A few firms have been formed with flexible hours at the core of their values with good results. Reassuringly, these firms have been started by men as well as women, because they saw it as an important issue for themselves as well as their partners and employees. Although it may be commonly believed that flexible hour arrangements hurt a firm economically, recent studies, particularly by the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) in Washington, DC, have made a business case for flexibility actually being to a firm's economic advantage when firms look at the cost side as well as revenue calculations. Turnover is so costly that being able to retain trained and talented professionals has a greater positive impact on the bottom line than requiring full-time work from everyone. This is true over the long term in both boom and soft economies.


Here again, flexibility in permitting part of the time telecommuting or providing work space in places outside the firm's traditional offices is being recognized as a viable alternative to the traditional model, that is, everyone being required to work in the same workplace. In reality, even without an official flexibility policy, because they have to, people routinely work in airports, airplanes, trains, clients' offices, at home at night and weekends, and other places too numerous to mention. Today's fast pace requires that work be done wherever we are.

As long as people are together in one room when they need to be, where people do their own creative work should be a matter of where they do it most productively. A friend of mine, Cynthia Froggatt, who has written a recently published book called "Work Naked," has a theory that where people work best may be identified by where they chose to study in college. Those who studied in the library and need to see people working around them (or gain energy from that) probably are best suited to work in a traditional office environment. Those who studied in their dorm rooms or apartments may do best working in home offices. And those who studied in the student union or coffee shops, etc., might be most productive now in similar environments. Assuming that there is validity to this theory, which she has tested in working with many corporations, many people would be more productive working at home or somewhere outside the firm's office.

Special facilities are being built and offered for additional location flexibility. To accommodate an increasingly mobile work force, companies have established profitable businesses providing temporary office space for out-of-town meetings. All the needed services are provided. And some Big Five accounting/consulting firms have set up satellite offices in suburbs near many workers' homes to enable people to work, on some days, where it is more convenient and less traveling is required.


Firms are finding that using contract lawyers - those temporarily engaged by a firm, not considered regular staff – makes good sense in terms of economic and quality advantage when: the firm wants to maintain the flexibility to expand and contract, closely tracking the workload demands. Also, experienced contract lawyers can be very valuable when special expertise is needed for a sustained period of time, and it does not exist within the firm nor warrant "permanent" hiring of a person at that level of experience and practice focus. New, growing firms have used contract lawyering successfully to help get them established and growing, without a long-term commitment to a hefty salary and benefits. In fact, the benefits package and administration is handled by agencies that search for and provide contract lawyers, easing administration time and costs.


“Cross-training” is another way to increase flexibility. Often we hear about cross-training when referring to administrative people who have been trained to perform functions that apply to more than one job or position. It can make their jobs more interesting, given the variety and new things to learn, as well as assure that tasks get done when the person usually responsible is not available.

However, cross-training is perhaps more useful for processionals, and it leaves firms better prepared to serve their clients at any time. We are currently in a cycle that points out the desirability of “cross-training” of legal staff and even partners. Bankruptcy was slow for several years (well, we do like a booming economy!), but now that it is hot again, corporate deal-makers have less to do. Real estate is slower in many markets. These are just a few examples. Those lawyers and paralegals that can have some flexibility as to the areas of practice they concentrate in will have the easiest times negotiating peaks and valleys. In a small firm it is more likely that attorneys will be “cross-disciplinary” than in larger firms where there tends to be narrow specialization.

Given the down-cycle in the economy, many firms are shifting transactional lawyers to such areas as litigation or bankruptcy. This redeployment is an attempt to avoid lay-offs. (Some examples are Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison). This shifting from one practice group to another works best with one-to-three year associates, who have less invested in an existing practice.

I believe that routine cross-training entry level associates as a matter of regular policy is a benefit to both firms and individuals. Firms will have greater flexibility at all times, and individuals will see multi-dimensional expertise as both an investment in them by their firm and a way to maintain their marketability.

Now that there are widespread mandatory CLE requirements, there is another incentive to learn more than one area of practice. People have to find some way to earn their credits, and flexibility is an asset. Attorneys will be able to take a broader view of clients' problems, which is highly valued by clients.


Firms and legal departments (as well as other law organizations) need to give greater weight to the value of skills that lawyers do not learn in law school.

For example:

  • strategic business thinking
  • interpersonal skills
  • training
  • mentoring
  • project management
  • firm business management

to name some of the most important ones. These skills are a form of diversity that is underappreciated, especially in firm partnerships or among shareholders.

Vital to the thriving firm of the future, these skills are highly valued by clients and young lawyers. The challenge we face is changing firm management's way of thinking about what skills clients value and what attributes and skills are required to operate a successful professional business.

Each of the components described in this article add up to a truly flexible firm ready to change quickly in reaction to external circumstances such as the marketplace's changing needs, and the needs and values of the work force. Other fields, industries and professions have been adapting for some time. Law firms will need to become more flexible to retain their talent, make people want to do their best work and compete. Firm management needs to do the new math and give more than lip service to workable flexibility policies.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2001.