Women lawyers see flex-work as career-limiting

Report suggests law firms look beyond billable hours as definition of success

In 1978, Susan Clarke was one of two female lawyers at a Toronto law firm. When the other woman had her first child, the law firm let her work part time, something that was very unusual for the times, said Clarke. Unfortunately, the experience left a lot to be desired.

“They did not have a clue what to do with her and they simply ignored her. Nobody gave her any work and she was treated like she wasn’t really there,” said Clarke.

So when Clarke became pregnant in 1983, she quit the law firm and began doing contract work and working in academia. Ten years later she returned to private practice, this time at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto, where she’s now a partner and the director of professional development.

“When I came back in, it was a big thing for me to try to make things better for the group coming behind. I thought that, at my age, once I’m past the child-rearing age, nobody is going to say to me, ‘Oh, you’re just doing this for your own interests,’” she said. “I thought I had a bit of clout and a bit of credibility to make a difference.”

However, according to a new study by Toronto-based research and advisory group Catalyst Canada, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Lawyers State Their Case on Job Flexibility, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Half of the 1,439 lawyers surveyed said law firms are doing poorly or very poorly in their provision of flexible work arrangements — defined in this study as telecommuting, flex-time, reduced work hours, compressed work weeks and job sharing. And the majority of respondents believe that by using flexible work arrangements, lawyers are limiting their careers and their chances to make partner, with more women than men expressing this fear.

Of women who had taken advantage of flexible work arrangements, 53 per cent said doing so limited their professional development, compared to only 21 per cent of men.

One of the reasons for this difference in perceptions is that men are more likely to choose full-time flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, said Deborah Gillis, president of Catalyst Canada.

“Women are more likely to use part-time flexible work arrangements, meaning they’re working fewer work hours and that fact may be what’s contributing to the difference in perception,” said Gillis.

And it’s the perception that a lawyer has to work more hours to be successful that 67 per cent of respondents said needs to change. The majority of lawyers said partners must be encouraged to accept that lawyers with different working styles can be effective and successful.

“I think there needs to be a fundamental philosophical change in the profession in terms of how we view the work that can be done in non-traditional ways,” said Janet Oh, the chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s equity committee.

One way to change this perception is to move away from billable hours to value billing, said Annette Horst, the chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s young lawyers committee.

“You pay for the service as opposed to the time it takes to complete the service,” she said. “That is an option that I think more lawyers would like to see. I think it’s better for everybody.”

There are also other ways to measure success, said Oh.

“You can measure success by what kind of client relationships you have. That’s not necessarily measured by how many billable hours you have,” she said. “If you are able to work effectively within a reduced number of hours, that’s also a measure of success.”

In fact, many of the women lawyers who work four-day weeks end up trying to do five days worth of work and they inevitably take phone calls at home on their days off, she said.

This is a phenomenon Clarke sees as well. If an important meeting falls on a day a lawyer usually has off, she will “move heaven and earth” to get to that meeting, which negates one of the biggest concerns senior management has regarding a lawyer’s ability to meet a client’s needs if the lawyer is on a flexible work arrangement.

About two thirds of lawyers, men and women, report having trouble managing the demands of work and personal life, according to an earlier Catalyst report Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Creating Opportunities for Better Balance. This finding shows the issue of flexible work arrangements isn’t just a women’s issue.

“This is the single biggest identified issue for young lawyers,” said Horst.

She has seen a lot of lawyers leave the big, high-profile firms for universities or other jobs that allow them to have Christmas vacations and time off in the summer. These lawyers are willing to take a pay cut to have the extra time.

“I really believe that firms that get this issue right in terms of flexible work arrangements will have a competitive advantage in terms of the attraction and retention of legal talent,” said Gillis. “People don’t move for money. It’s culture, environment and quality work that are the key motivators for lawyers in firms.”

One of the ways to keep talented lawyers is to create a culture that embraces flexible work arrangements and doesn’t leave lawyers feeling they’re putting their careers at risk if they participate in the programs.

If a firm doesn’t have a formal policy for flexible work arrangements, women who ask for them feel as if they have been given special dispensation and worry their careers will suffer, said Oh.

“If there’s a feeling among younger associates that senior management believes that these are valuable ways of keeping their young attorneys, then perhaps you won’t have that feeling that it’s a career-limiting move,” she said. “But as long as it’s seen as something you don’t talk about, that you do on a case-by-case basis, that you have to beg for it, then it’s not going to be seen as something that’s going to advance one’s career.”

However, not all policies are equal. Some firms make it clear that lawyers won’t be considered for partnership while on a flexible work arrangement, something Gowling Lafleur Henderson used to do.

“We used to say that, but we don’t anymore. We now have two women partners, and we’re probably going to have a couple more this year, who have become partners while they were on flex-time and will continue on flex-time as partners,” said Clarke.

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