The reason so few partners take advantage of part-time schedules is that there is often a gap between the written policy and how it is practiced, especially at midsize and small firms.
"There are firms that have written policies that look terrific on paper," says Ellen Ostrow, a Silver Spring, Maryland, psychologist and life coach who specializes in counseling lawyers. "[Yet] I've seen women try to use the policies and be told that there's no such thing as a part-time partner, or be told that the only practice that can realistically fit in reduced hours is a trust and estates practice, or be told that they've manipulated the firm into thinking that they were going to be a contributing member and that's why they had been advanced to partnership."
Over the years Ostrow has counseled many part-time attorneys who had trouble balancing their schedules against the expectations of their firms, colleagues and clients.
As with any employment arrangement, the less specific the policy, the more that can go wrong. Ostrow says she is currently coaching one D.C. client who is suing her employer for demoting her to nonequity partner after she shifted to a part-time schedule. The lawyer had planned to quit after the birth of her child, says Ostrow, but agreed to return when the firm offered her reduced hours. In her suit the lawyer alleges that her firm didn't specify that part-time partners could not continue as equity partners.
In the world of law, 45 hours a week is considered banker's hours. No wonder, then, that most part-time partners don't go out of their way to advertise their status to their clients or their full time colleagues. Some actually hide it.
Ostrow cites one client who works with a male partner "who's extremely competitive and who undermines her when she's not there. He doesn't know she's working reduced hours, and she doesn't want him to know."
Ostrow says reduced schedules are more likely to be accepted at firms where at least 40 percent of the mid- and senior-level attorneys are women. With that mix "the reality of life outside the firm has become a normative thing," she says. "Then everybody starts acknowledging that they have lives and they have families. And once you can talk about those things, then a lot of other things become easier."