Long hours, high billing quotas, and unpredictable schedules are common complaints in the legal industry today. Recent layoffs are piling even greater workloads upon legal professionals and many employees are calling for a better work life balance.
In the current economic environment, work life balance now ranks as one of the most important workplace attributes-second only to compensation, according to research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board among more than 50,000 global workers. And employees who feel they have a better work life balance tend to work 21% harder than those that don't, Business Week reports.
In response, today's law firms, corporate legal departments and other legal employers are embracing a variety of work life balance initiatives. This is great news for legal professionals, both young and old, who are eager for a saner work schedule.
If you crave a better work life balance, below are a few ways to balance the juggling act of a legal career and personal life.
Technology has helped usher in the workplace flexibility trend. E-mails, laptops, PDAs, Blackberrys, webinars, videoconferencing and other technology tools allow legal professionals to work remotely and remain connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Taking advantage of these technology tools may gain you a few extra hours at home or a more flexible work schedule.
If you seek greater flexibility and control over your work schedule, alternative work arrangements are another way to strike a balance between personal and professional life. Examples of alternative work schedules include flextime, staggered hours, part-time employment and job sharing.
Expanded maternity and paternity leaves
The birth of a child can significantly raise the stress and time demands of an already busy legal professional. Recognizing the need to accommodate new parents, legal employers are expanding maternity and paternity leaves for attorneys and staff. For example, Quarles & Brady, a mid-size firm headquartered in Chicago, has both eliminated its billable hour requirements and expanded its parental leave policies. Women can now take 12 weeks with pay and men can take 6 weeks. Moreover, that time can be divided, meaning a father can take a few weeks off when his baby is born and a few more after his wife returns to work.
Tiered Pay Scales
For those who want to step off the fast-track and enjoy life outside the firm, some employers offer a multi-tiered pay scale. McDermott, Will & Emery, for example, offers associates the option of working reduced hours and flexible schedules while enjoying big-firm status. In exchange for fewer hours, those associates handle less complex tasks (such as document review), receive lower salaries, and are not eligible for partnership. This cutting-edge scheme reduces legal costs and frees up high-priced associates for more complex tasks while providing associates the option of lower pay and fewer hours.
Chapman & Cutler, a midsize firm in Chicago, has also rolled out a two-tier pay scale for associates, according to the New York Times. Associates can choose to bill 2,000 hours a year and be paid accordingly. Those who would like to see their families a little more can opt for 1,850 billable hours. Both groups will have a chance to become partner, albeit at different paces. More than half of the associates offered this choice opted for the reduced schedule.
Virtual assistants (VAs) are independent paralegal and legal administrative entrepreneurs who use the Internet and emerging technologies to assist attorneys. Virtual assistants are a win-win economic solution for both the employee and employer. Since virtual assistants work offsite offering their services on a contractual basis, they eliminate the overhead associated with conventional office support. Moreover, working as a VA can provide workers the control and flexibility lacking in traditional office positions. If you truly crave flexibility, control and a work-from-home lifestyle, you might consider a career as a VA.
Reduced billable hours
The billable hour has long been a staple of American legal practice. Over the years, law firm billable hour requirements have risen from around 1,700 to 2,200+ hours a year, forcing legal professionals to work 60 hours or more a week.
Several years ago, the American Bar Association issued a report calling for the end of the billable hour. Clients, too, have expressed dislike of the traditional billable hour business model. Law firms are now reexamining the billable hour and creating new, flexible work arrangements and compensation strategies. An increased use of flat-fee arrangements (billing a set fee for the entire case or transaction) and alternative fee arrangements has decreased the emphasis on billable hours. This transition from the billable hour may translate into a more relaxed work schedule for attorneys, paralegals and other timekeepers.