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Managing Work Expectations: Tools, Models and Dialogue

by Phyllis Weiss Haserot and Holly English

Despite good intentions, balanced hours and flexible work arrangements programs in most firms are still ad hoc affairs, more policy and theory than concrete, measurement-driven, tangible processes.

On the one hand, most legal employers (95% of those firms that get surveyed) have adopted some kind of policy offering part-time schedules and or other alternatives to a flat-out 24/7 type of commitment to the office. However, usability is low - about 3 percent, and lower for partners only. The main reason given for this is that the vast majority of lawyers believe working alternative schedules will harm their careers. On the other hand, families and personal lives are often hurt the way things are. Many lawyers - men and women - would respond with familiarity to a six year old son's announcement that "When I grow up, I want to be a client."

Even Marina Park, managing partner at Pillsbury Winthrop, who became a partner on an 80 percent schedule before returning, as managing partner, to full-time, said, " I am working a flex schedule that allows me to hang on by my fingernails." (That occurring with a very supportive husband.) From her vantage point as managing partner she said of firms in general, "It's not as though the firm is losing money having people on a part-time schedule. Why not allow them that alternative?" [Above quotes from "Women Lawyers in Balancing Act" by Kristina Horton-Flaherty, California Bar Journal, February 2002]

The key to resolving these frustrations all around is a change of perceptions, and this is necessary because the mainstream perceptions about workplace flexibility are, in general, erroneous. Statistics and anecdotes have been cited in articles, web sites, books, and public presentations. It is time to move from policy and lip service on policy to a concrete, measurable implementation process with a foundation of explicit business plans for the flexible work arrangements, mutual understanding of work expectations using an insightful assessment tool, and agreed upon evaluation criteria.


Flexibility should be viewed as broader than reduced or balanced hours. While many people think that obstacles to flexible work arrangements center on costs and difficulty of management, these are not the real issues getting in the way of successful alternative work schedules. Trust, stigma, unfamiliarity, and resistance to change are the main ones at almost all firms. Surfacing and articulating these issues and discussing them forthrightly is a vital first step to successful work/life balance. That starts the conversation at its core. Talking through objections,.having those objections challenged, allowing an exchange of views so that the issues can be fully aired out will help to clear the underbrush away so that the landscape is clearer and the real problems are starkly revealed.

For instance, some people maintain that "flexibility can never work around here" because of scheduling or client demands. In fact their real (unspoken) gripe is that people working reduced hours, job sharing, or telecommuting are breaking the long-time contract of 24/7, in-the-office dedication to lawyering. They feel that it just doesn't seem right or fair that some people work long hours and are always available, while others are not. This view can be challenged - noting effects on families, disproportionate effects on women, changing societal trends, family-friendly clients who prefer like-minded law firms, etc. - but only if the view is surfaced and discussed honestly.

Another vital point is to plan flexible schedules carefully. This is not just with respect to the agreed salary, bonus, benefits, work hours and locations and the like. Talking through the arrangement in advance with a facilitator enables potential problems to be anticipated (such as child care or elder care problems, how to contact the person in an emergency, handling work spilling over to other lawyers). Not only can this process result in practical answers and pinpoint remaining problem areas that need to be addressed, but it can also model the way forward for the participants. It will encourage open communication rather than silent resentment over unaddressed problems - the great killer of flexible work arrangements.

To make headway on these deep-rooted issues, it is necessary to establish a common language among the various parties involved. It is usually a mistake to assume that all people have the same motivations, needs, expectations, means of satisfaction and definitions of success. Similarly each person does not necessarily hear and interpret the same message in the same way.

Assessment Tools

Professionals feel more comfortable with concrete evidence or at least tangible assessments and reports than abstractions and policies. It increases the credibility, and the measurement factors enable evaluation of results.

There are two assessment tools we use to lay the foundation for a common language. One is a personal profile that identifies: personal behavior style; the strengths and weaknesses of the style; how to read others to identify their styles; and how to modify behavior to build rapport with them. Having the flexible work arrangements candidate, supervisor and work team complete this profile and interpreting it with them will provide a common language and a means of building and deepening trust.

The second tool is a profile of work expectations. With it, individuals identify and rank the importance to them of 10 types of expectations in addition to compensation in ways that people ordinarily can't articulate. Having this type of profile completed, analyzed and interpreted not only for the FWA candidates, but also by their practice heads, supervisors and teammates lays the foundation for clarification of mutual expectations, open dialogue, adjustment of expectations, if necessary, and increased accountability. It also helps to ease the acceptance and approval process for a viable business plan by the FWA candidate.

Business Plans

Another critical tool is a business plan from each FWA candidate. The business plan can be developed as a natural outgrowth of the dialogue among the parties (FWA candidate, supervisor, team members) with a facilitator. These are almost never required but should be.

The business plan should cover all the aspects of the proposed arrangement, not merely hours, commitments, place of work and compensation. Again this provides a concrete document spelling out all points of agreement between the individual, supervisor and practice head an the work team. It would cover roles and responsibilities to a work team, management issues, and record keeping. In addition, how the individual and the arrangement is to be evaluated would be spelled out in the business plan. These specifics take the arrangement from an ad hoc, subjective leap of faith to a road map for building trust and enabling measurement. For management in particular, the firm can track the costs associated with flexible schedules, rate of turnover, and revenue generated by all participants, to assess the financial viability of flexibility


Many corporations have made significant strides in instituting viable flexible work arrangements with positive results for job satisfaction, retention and productivity. Are law firms so different that they can't adapt their practices? Just as an example, looking only at those people classified in professional specialties in the workforce as a whole, 15 percent worked part time (Bureau of Labor Statistics 1999) as compared with 3 percent in law firms (National Association of Law Placement, 2000). Three large accounting firms - Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Deloitte & Touche - have significant programs which have greatly increased retention of women (the original purpose) and now have broadened to include utilization by men as well. They have been cited repeatedly by Fortune and Working Mother Magazines as among the best places to work, gaining public relations value as well as recruiting/retention success.

Among the accomplishments: they have reduced non-essential travel, have a database profiling actual flexibility solutions, and are focusing on enriching the work experience while people are with the firm. Also they are building life-long relationships with alumni toward developing future business with them and increasing the "boomerang" effect, enticing valued employees back if they leave the firm. From the client perspective, according to Allison Shipley, a personal financial services principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers, "Both my clients and the firm require flexibility in coordinating work - the mutual respect and cooperating that exist today foster an energized and creative work environment that, in my opinion, is a winning combination for our firm and our clients."

One of four factors determining partners' compensation at Ernst & Young is how they manage the people who report to them. This keeps the focus on treating people well, which is measured in periodic internal surveys and retention rates. Some of the firms hold workshops (required attendance) that change the language of success and definition of commitment away from primarily "face-time."

Much of the stigma is gone in those firms. Are law firms so different? Arguments are made in firms year after year that flexibility only can work with certain people at certain levels in certain types of practices. This is not necessarily true if the arrangement and administration is structured right. Research findings support this. For example:

  • The 2001 Project for Attorney Retention (PAR) study found that what seems to determine whether flexible arrangements can work is the attitude of the supervisor, rather than the practice area of the lawyer. They found examples of reduced-hour attorneys working in many supposedly "off-limits" areas.
  • Lawyers who hold part-time teaching positions or political office spend fewer than the "standard" number of hours in their law offices with no stigma.
  • Only 17% of lawyers surveyed in the Catalyst "Women in Law" study (2001) said that clients are uncomfortable working with lawyers with reduced schedules. Many in-house corporate counsel are encouraging balanced hours consistent with the fact that they went in-house to seek reduced hours. In many companies work/life initiatives have been in place for years.

    Building on these findings, many firms are instituting innovative best practices. For instance:
  • At Pillsbury Winthrop LP, practice group heads are held accountable for attrition.
  • An Australian law firm held a seminar about work/life issues and invited their clients to provide an opening for dialogue on handling workflow and minimizing turnover.
  • Firms abolishing the "up or out" system can end rigid lockstep and allow for "phased careers," which are designed to meet the individual's and firm needs at a particular time.
  • Some firms do not treat individual attorneys as short-term profit centers, but instead look at what individuals can bring to the firm over their full tenure at the firm.

Clients are dealing with a variety of flexible working arrangements (hours, locations, staffing) in their own businesses and are finding ways to deal with people's childcare, elder care and other needs much more willingly than law firms are. They are much more flexible, understanding, and encouraging, especially when "solo work" (not requiring face-to-face meetings) is done.

And there are many examples where careful organizing of flexible arrangements has resulted in success for the firm as well as the individual:

  • A litigator in a Washington, DC firm worked a 7:30 am to 3:00 pm schedule for three years as an associate and was promoted to partner while still working part-time. She said, "My colleagues were terrific about not scheduling conferences late in the day." .If late conferences couldn't be avoided, the lawyer participated from home. She worked longer hours as trial deadlines approached, then took some time off after the trials concluded.
  • A Mergers & Acquisitions partner at a mid-sized Minneapolis firm took off Fridays for five years, though checking voicemail a few times a day. She now comes in every day, and takes time off as needed. "My colleagues know that I am committed to any project I take on and clients can always reach me when needed," she said.
  • A partner in a New York firm was quoted in the PAR study report: "I have a part-time man who works for me. I've always thought you get the most out of people by working with their quirks and demands as opposed to fighting them. . . I got brains. I got hard work. So I didn't have somebody there the minute I had to, but most of the time it was only in somebody's mind that it had to be done that minute."
  • Firms that have worked hard to resolve work/life issues, such as Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, LLP, Arnold & Porter, Shearman & Sterling, Hogan & Hartson, LLP and Palmer & Dodge, while experiencing higher usage rates for flexible arrangements, have not found an inordinate or unmanageable number of people asking to reduce their hours (rarely topping 10 percent). And the firms have remained highly profitable.
  • Increasingly, new firms (and to this date still relatively small in number of lawyers) have established the firms around the shared values of having personal lives and using their personal time for various reasons, not just child care or family issues. These firms attract lawyers with top qualifications. They work out their flexible arrangements individually. A number of these firms - such as Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis and Sullivan, Weinstein & McQuay - were started by men. They are successful financially because they control costs, use technology extensively in the office and home, and experience low turnover from happy, satisfied attorneys.

(Note: Several examples above were cited in the PAR Report, "Balanced Hours" May 2001 by Joan Williams and Cynthia Thomas Calvert.)

These examples and many others demonstrate that law firms can resolve the perceived obstacles to flexibility and manage work expectations if the will is present. There is an inevitability to the shift toward flexibility. Eventually firms and legal departments will be pushed toward it by their clients and the demands of their valued professionals. Those are important stakeholders to satisfy. Flexibility can be a significant part of an organization's brand. Doing it sooner rather than later establishes an advantageous position. This article has laid out the steps and tools to accomplish it.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot and Holly English 2002.

This article was published in Of Counsel, Vol. 21, No. 7, July 2002.