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Can a Law Firm Really Offer Flexibility for Working Moms?

Your billable-hour requirements don't change when baby comes along

by Sara  |  2476 views  |  2 comments  |        Rate this now! 

Most people I know don’t associate the practice of law with the term “family friendly.” My mom friends who have earned their law degree have happily shelved their JDs for their MRS degrees. It seems that the long hours and the needs of clients and partners typically send a mom-to-be fleeing from the comfort of their leather-backed chairs to the plush carpet of the local Gymboree.

I know when I see the terms "law" and "flexible" in the same sentence I begin to get nervous. As the wife to a partner in a law firm, I have witnessed first-hand that law firm life is anything but flexible. Clients who pay a lot of money for good advice and counsel do not take so kindly to, “Sorry, I gotta catch my son’s baseball game.” There’s a reason my husband’s never been to our pre-school class. So when I read Lisa Belkin’s recent article in the New York Times about how major law firms are changing the game of practicing law, I couldn’t help but read on.

According to the article: “… firms are becoming more serious about slowing the stampede for the door. So far the change -- which includes taking fresh looks at the billable hour, schedules, and partnership tracks -- is mostly at the smaller firms. But even some of the larger, more-hidebound employers are taking notice.”

Belkin makes a convincing point about how even the old-school law firms are starting to manage the much maligned billable hour, among other things, differently. But it’s the billable hour itself that’s the bane of most lawyers’ existence. Most large law firms in the United States require a “quota of hours” that their lawyers must meet on a yearly basis. This quota has increased drastically over the past decades, with little change in the way of lifestyle or benefits.

“During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the requirement was between 1,600 and 1,800 hours a year or about 34 hours a week," Belkin writes in her article. "Today, that has risen to 2,000 to 2,200 hours, or roughly 42 hours a week.”

If you think billing 42 hours a week seems unreasonable, especially given most of us think a 40-hour work week is standard, you are not alone. Throw in a kid-related emergency, and the stress of dealing with your family may be nothing compared with meeting your expected billable-hour target. However, there are experts out there working on the case. According to Belkin, one of these experts, Denise Epstein Henry, even founded a consulting firm, Flex-Time Lawyers, to try to help solve the issue. Her research and backing has won favor of some major law firms -- so much so that one firm is doing away with the billable hour completely.

About the Author

I'm a former corporate hack trying the full-time mom thing. But I still like to write about how working moms are portrayed in the media. You can read more of me at my blog:

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2 comments so far...

  • 42 billable hours is a whole heck of a lot different than 42 working hours -- as a former practicing attorney, I know you have to work 8 to bill 7.

    I don't care what large law firms are claiming -- nothing warm and fuzzy going on there, only the continuing goal to bill more hours and make more money. If you can't pull your weight, you're out.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by PunditMom on 20th February 2008

  • Wow, Sara, I so enjoyed reading your article. You express your feelings on this issue with such eloquence. I don't blame you for feeling trapped at a job that had such requirements. I agree that this sort of policy can only drive away a lot of talented working moms. And I just resent the fact that moms in traditional workplaces are forced into these stressful situations. Thanks again for your article!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Diane on 1st February 2008