Lawyers Journal

Part-time attorneys and their firms find it pays to be flexible

Special to Lawyers Journal Ted MacVeagh of Boston's Bromberg and Sunstein did not think his firm would allow him to work part time. A few years ago, he told management he was starting to look for legal work through a temp agency so he could help his wife with childcare. He was pleasantly surprised by their response. They told him he could stay and work reduced hours.
"I didn't expect them to come back and make me an offer. They said if you want to work part time, do that with us," he said. Since the late 1990s, he has continued to license agreements and represent technology start-ups within three-fifths of the time he previously worked.
MacVaegh and other lawyers are aware of a common notion that law firms, particularly those with more than 100 attorneys, try to avoid arranging part-time opportunities because of such administrative complications as payroll, benefits and billing.
Bromberg & Sunstein is different in that it allows part-time employment on an ad hoc basis with no threat to advancement at the firm. Staff employees and all 35 attorneys are eligible for flextime schedules, and arrangements are made frequently. In addition, a blanket policy for leaves of absence is in effect, according to partner Lisa Fleming, who has worked part time since 1997 for childcare reasons.
"It's possible for part-time attorneys to become partners. The firm balances issues. It's dealt with on an individual basis," she said.
Other small to medium-sized law firms also accommodate attorneys who request part-time arrangements. According to estimates from the Massachusetts Bar Association, there are more than 700 part-time attorneys across the state.
Attorney Richard Mandel found flexibility at a medium-sized firm. He divides his time as a partner at Bowditch & Dewey in Framingham and as the dean of curriculum at Babson College in Wellesley.
"Working at Babson is unique," Mandel said. "They encourage professors in business disciplines to be out in the community. Part of my job is to be competent in my area of expertise."
According to Mandel, who started working part time in 1985 when he was a professor at Babson teaching business law and taxation, Bowditch & Dewey supports the arrangement because he brings in business from his Babson contacts.
B&D executive director John Medbury understands Mandel's reasons for working part time, but only keeps a few flexible positions open. Several women attorneys work part time due to family considerations as well.
"I don't think it's unusual for partners, if they have a particular specialty or talent they bring to the firm," Medbury said, adding that technology is no longer an interference, since attorneys can access mail and documents from home. Still, the firm's 60 attorneys are not allowed to work exclusively from home or share their job responsibilities.
"We have the confidence of our clients. Attorneys are available when needed. It's not as much a problem as it used to be from a profitability perspective," Medbury said.
Mandel said Bowditch & Dewey has always allowed him to work part-time, even before it was an accepted arrangement in the mid-1980s.
"Then it was a woman's issue," Mandel said. "It is to their credit. Everyone understood then that part time was about time management and effective delegation."
Childcare was an issue for Mandel, because both he and his wife worked, but full-time daycare was available.
"It was not a childcare driven decision. It was a two-career-driven decision," he said.
Large firms less flexible
Large firms also have part time policies but may not be as flexible as firms that have fewer than 100 attorneys. Both Goodwin, Procter & Hoar and Mintz Levin in Boston have attorneys who work part time. Most are women.
"[People] work from home. It's very much accepted, people can do that and be promoted," said Beth I.Z. Boland of Mintz Levin, who is a member of the Women's Bar Association's Employment Issues Committee.
In the WBA committee's 2000 report "The Effect of Reduced-Hours Arrangements on the Retention, Recruitment and Success of Women Attorneys in Law Firms," it was found that small to medium-sized firms usually don't have written part-time policies, but implementation efforts and changes in firm culture are important.
"Firms that respond to the needs of the ever-increasing number of women in the work force will be better able to compete for critical talent than those that remain inflexible either in their policies or through their practices or corporate cultures," the report states.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 in part, initiated the traditional reasons for flextime and arranged schedules. According to the legislation, employees may work reduced hours to promote the stability and economic security of families.
Attorney Erin Higgins of Conn, Kavanaugh, Rosenthal, Peisch and Ford in Boston said working part time is easier at smaller firms.
"It's harder to do part time at larger firms, where it's institutionalized and you're trapped into a particular type of work," she said.
Higgins has been working as a part-time attorney since 1996 for childcare reasons. She became partner in January while on maternity leave with her third child.
While childcare also was an issue for MacVeagh, so was his personal time. He helps his wife, who recently gave birth to twins, and writes essays for a New York publication. MacVeagh now has time for continuing legal education. As a result, he sees the importance of his career within the other essential components of his life.
"There's a lot more to do in life than lawyering," said MacVeagh. "Because I work part time for fairly nebulous reasons, I'm flexible. I don't have to be home at a certain point. I don't have to leave a client in the lurch. One of the nice things about the particular situation is I don't have a routine."

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association