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Devise Flexible Work Arrangements That Actually Work

Perspectives
(a publication of the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession)
Volume 12, Number 4
Spring 2004
By Holly English, Esq. and Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.

Given the rather dismal track record of alternative work arrangements in the legal profession, it’s easy to become discouraged about making an arrangement work for you and your employer.

Broader change n the workplace will come about when institutions, such as law firms and in-house legal departments, dedicate themselves to supporting successful alternative work arrangements. In the meantime, the burden is more on the individual to devise a nontraditional schedule. You’ll need cooperation from your employer, but you can maximize the odds of garnering that kind of support by presenting a well-crafted proposal.

Before You Get Started on Your Alternative Arrangement

Clarify existing policies. Find out your organization’s written or informal policies at the outset, including salary, bonus, benefits, vacation and policies on advancement.

Do some detective work. Seek out those who work part time, or those who tried and failed, and ask them confidentially work works well and what doesn’t. You can integrate this information into your proposal. (For example, accounting giant Ernst & Young keeps a database of the details of all such arrangements.)

Recruit a champion. It will be difficult to craft a workable new schedule without a powerful advocate in the organization. So choose a supervisor you trust and like. The bonus: the better your relationship, the easier it is to negotiate something.

Be creative. A flexible work arrangement doesn’t have to be three days a week from 9 to 5. Identify precisely what your lifestyle and practice issues are - and design your proposal accordingly. Do you need more out-of-the-office time each day? Would you prefer to work from home? If you’re a litigator, you can’t limit yourself to a three-day week or leave daily at 3 P.M. But you can take time between trials.

Be business-savvy. Present your proposal as a win-win. Your employer will examine your proposal with an eye toward the goals of the business, while your supervisor will want to know how the work you leave behind will get done. Make sure you address the economics of the organization as well as equitable work distribution issues. And do understand that you have some economics on your side. If you become dissatisfied and decide to leave the firm, it will cost your organization a great deal to recruit and train someone to replace you and deal with the squandered investment made to train you. In addition, other things lost if you leave are institutional knowledge and client relationships you’ve formed. Finally, don’t be fazed if your employer says, “If you do it, everyone else will too.” There’s no substantiating data for this idea.

Be prepared for resistance. If your employer has little experience with nontraditional schedules or feels she’s been burned in the past, she might be hesitant to try again. Understand this and empathize. Don’t fight policies that seem limited at the beginning. Suggest a trial period so everyone can get comfortable with the new arrangement.

Get used to talking about potential issues in advance. Communication is key. Talk through problems that may arise before you start including

  • how to contact you when you’re not in the office
  • what to do when a crisis at work arises
  • whether you have backup child-care if your child gets sick
  • your availability during crunch periods

Before you start a flexible work arrangement is also the ideal time to talk about policies that aren’t clear. Having open conversations will bring up “undiscussables” and will model healthy communication practices to be used later. The biggest threat to healthy alternative work arrangements is faulty or nonexistent communication, so brush up on your communication skills. Listen actively and nondefensively so you can remain attuned to others’ concerns. Then you’ll be prepared to act proactively to prevent problems.

While You Are on an Alternative Schedule

Be trustworthy. Only promise to do what you absolutely can do - this is the basis of trust in all relationships. Skeptics will be happy to ascribe any professional shortcomings to your “different” status, so don’t give them ammunition.

Stay on the radar screen. Many people on alternative schedules say, “I have no time to chat at work.” This is understandable, but it makes you look aloof, uncaring, and as if you have no interest in the workplace. Say “hi” to co-workers and chat for two minutes in the hallway, join the lunch bunch now and then, peek into colleagues’ offices, attend important meetings, and serve on management committees. If the work assignment system is “give it to the first person you see,” you’ll need to be visible. If you can’t be there in person, communicate your interest in good assignments by phone and email. Be persistent in seeking out good work.

Manage your clients. Your boss may tell you your clients won’t tolerate a flexible work arrangement, but research by the Project for Attorney Retention (http://www.pardc.org) and our experience talking to lawyers working reduced schedules do not support this. Share information about your schedule with clients, depending on who they are and your relationship with them. Remember, no attorney works for any one client 24/7. Face time is not the same as availability.

Work toward two-way flexibility. You’ll want understanding about your schedule, but you’ll need to be flexible as well. So don’t fly out the door at the stroke of 5 when a crisis is going on. Demonstrating flexibility and commitment empowers you to expect the same from others. On the other hand, beware of schedule creep. If you’re working consistently far longer than agreed, either take the time off later or ask to be compensated. You don’t want to consistently work 100 percent of the time and be paid for 80 percent.

Empathize with colleagues. Your colleagues may get resentful and frustrated as they grind away while you aren’t there as much as they are. You should not ignore the potential for backlash, so be meticulous about fairness. For instance, help arrange work assignments so that already-overworked colleagues are not getting even more work dumped on them. Have understanding for those working traditional schedules and pay attention to their feelings.

Manage the politics. You may experience put-downs, like sarcastic jibes to “enjoy your day off,” or subtle attempts to derail your arrangement, like superiors who suddenly require your attendance at meetings during your days off. Some resentment is understandable; other times it’s excessive. When reacting to comments that are subtle or not so subtle, don’t abandon your self-respect. When colleagues get cranky, remind them that they get paid more and that your work schedule is not a “cushy deal” but a fair-and-square business arrangement.

Be a player. Bring in business if at all possible - it’s the deal clincher. You will have very few political problems if you are known as a rainmaker. Or you can develop a specialty that is valuable and commands high billings. You must make sure people know about your successes - they won’t unless you tell them.

Going Beyond the Basics…

Advocate flextime for all. You can play a larger role as time goes on, especially if your new schedule works out well. Within your firm, advocate for flexibility that’s not tied to family concerns. There are many reasons that lawyers want to reduce their hours. Creating a split between lawyers with and without families hurts everyone.

Remember that change is difficult. Law firms - and U.S. employers in general - celebrate “commitment as measured by endless hours at work. Indeed, there’s a long-standing model of how legal work gets done (”no one can practice part time”), and law is a risk-averse profession. If you make a change, others will have to shift too, but it’s never easy. To ease the transition, look for support from like-minded people and others who have alternative schedules. You’ll all undoubtedly have great stories to share.

Dispel the idea that flextime is an accommodation. Finally, don’t think of your nontraditional arrangement as an “accommodation.” Flexibility is the most desired job characteristic in all industries studied. No one can realistically have a normal life without schedule flexibility, especially in today’s world of forced overwork. So, instead of thinking that you’re in a fringe group with no hope of acceptance, be assured that you are in the vanguard of a new, dynamic movement dedicated to nothing less than reforming the way work is done.

 

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