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Managing the Work-Life Balance in Big Law

June 25, 2015, 3:03 PM

It’s been almost 30 years since Working Mother magazine coined the term “work-life balance.” Since then, men as well as women have increasingly sought ways to practice law without the grueling hours.

Now Joan Williams, a professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, has co-authored a report assessing “new models” of legal practice that have evolved since the 1990s to afford attorneys more control over their schedules and hopes of achieving that ever-elusive balance.

Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings, researched and wrote the report along with Aaron Platt and Jessica Lee. They found that five types of new models have developed: firms that place lawyers in-house either full or part-time; law and business-advice companies that, as the name suggests, combine legal and general business advice; accordion companies that have networks of vetted lawyers to help firms staff up as necessary; virtual law firms; and innovative firms and companies.

The five types, Williams said in an interview Wednesday, “serve two types of lawyers — the first are those who want to keep their hands in legal practice 10-20 hours a week, while the second group still wants to work 50 hours a week but wants more flexibility.”

Many were started by disgruntled law firm attorneys who wanted to practice but in a different way. The companies and firms are springing up in many regions.

‘‘While there are more in California than anywhere else because entrepreneurship is a big thing here, what’s fascinating is that these alternatives are dispersed throughout the country,’’ said Williams, who is based in San Francisco.

The report lists companies and firms that offer attorneys flexible arrangements. They differ from traditional legal-temping companies because the work offered typically is more sophisticated, even though the costs to companies are often significantly lower, Williams said. She said that while the authors expect the report to become a resource for in-house counsel, it will help lawyers seeking alternatives to find options in one place.

Williams said that while traditional law firms have offered part-time options for decades, on top of experimenting with alternative fee arrangements, she found only one firm that has an established flexible program that is essentially a firm-within-a firm.

Fenwick & West LLP in 2010 created a program that offers clients services at a lower cost as well as different work arrangements for attorneys.

Co-founder and Fenwick partner Ralph Pais said in an interview that by 2010 the California-based firm recognized that its clients had grown enough so that for their everyday work ‘‘they only needed to negotiate a few provisions in their contracts. As a result, these clients said they needed a less costly alternative’’ for legal services.

Rather than relinquishing the work to smaller firms or the alternative models cropping up, ‘‘we decided it was worth pursuing a different model,’’ he said. Pais bumped into Alexandra Smith, a former associate who had also worked at Axiom, one of the companies highlighted in the report, and the two began talking.

Together they established FLEX to offer less expensive legal work. Beginning with six attorneys, the group has now grown to about 70, Smith, a senior director at Fenwick, said.

While some are former Fenwick associates, others have been in-house or at other firms, Smith said.

Their clients have included Intel Corp., John Muir Health and Logitech International SA.

Rates are typically one-third to one-half of traditional rates. While it was initially client-driven, Pais said, they knew there was a need to offer a different way to work.

There are two types of lawyers in FLEX. About half work traditional days that parallel that of the clients they advise, while others work only no more than 10 hours a week. Salaries mimic those of lawyers who have gone in-house.

While FLEX began as a means to keep work at the firm, Pais said, ‘‘We realized we could create a career path opportunity that people would feel they were successful and affiliated with a top organization.’’

‘‘Most lawyers want to do something to make their mothers proud,’’ no matter how old or accomplished they are, he said.