Making One of the Most Brutal Jobs a Little Less Brutal

Can lawyers balance work and leisure?

Marcelo Del Pozo / Reuters

A career at a major law firm usually means long hours, missed family vacations, and significant burnout—so much so that the troubles of unhappy attorneys in “Big Law” have spawned an industry dedicated to helping them quit their jobs. This continuous work cycle was recently described by the Columbia law professor Timothy Wu in The New Yorker as a “massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can.”

But things may be looking up for esquires, some of whom are opting for alternative work arrangements that don’t require as much personal sacrifice. A report recently published by the University of California, Hastings College of the Law highlights some of the firms in the U.S. and Canada that are developing what its subtitle calls “New Models of Legal Practice.” These New Model firms are built on a radical premise: Corporate lawyers can have work-life balance, too.

Large, corporate firms have tried implementing part-time schedules in order to relieve some of their overwhelmed employees, but to no avail. One reason that’s failed is what Joan Williams, the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at U.C. Hastings and the lead author of the report, calls “flexibility stigma,” which refers to the association of reduced hours with “negative competence assumptions.” The second is “schedule creep,” the phenomenon of a part-time job slowly warping back into a full-time one, without a corresponding raise in pay. “Slapping an alternative-schedule option on top of a full-time face time culture,” the report says, has not worked.

At many large firms, lawyers often bill 40 or 50 hours a week even if they are actually working 60 to 70. “There’s been a huge market failure for 20 years, where the market is not delivering to lawyers the schedules they want,” says Williams. Unlike Big Law firms, the New Model firms highlighted in the report “hard-bake into their business models flexibility and shorter hours for everyone.”

These firms employ two main types of schedules to bring professional time and leisure time back into balance. The first is what Williams calls “full-time flex,” a 40- to 50-hour workweek that can be tailored around family and other obligations. This arrangement means actually working 40 to 50 hours per week, not just billing those hours and working several more. The second type of schedule is a short, part-time arrangement (as few as 10 per week) for attorneys who want to put law on the backburner, sometimes temporarily. These lawyers tend to be “the moms and the jazz musicians,” says Williams.

Many New Model companies are not law firms, but matchmakers—they pair lawyers with clients, usually businesses or law firms—and their approaches usually fit one of two classifications. So-called “secondment firms” dispatch their pre-vetted lawyers to work in-house at a client site on a temporary or long-term basis. Senior attorneys can act as general counsels, and more junior ones help with overflow from busy in-house departments.

Meanwhile, “accordion companies” assemble networks of attorneys available to help small or mid-size firms or businesses expand to meet temporary surges in workflow, such as the flurry of activity right before a trial.

The myth that part-time arrangements are the province of female attorneys with children is debunked by the diversity of New Model firms—lifestyle is an issue for attorneys of all stripes. Paragon Legal, a secondment-type firm, was started in 2006 to cater to mothers of younger kids, but its founder, Mae O’Malley, says she’s now “proud to be attracting men” to her firm.

“Men really do want work-life balance,” says Williams. “They are just as dissatisfied with these all-or-nothing jobs and they are leaving.” According to O’Malley, Paragon Legal’s opportunities for work-life balance have attracted several younger lawyers to apply. (These firms don’t appear to be substantially less competitive, either: O’Malley says Paragon only accepts about 10 percent of applicants.)

The cost of all this personal time comes in the form of a smaller salary—but how much smaller? As one New Model founder is quoted as saying in the U.C. Hastings report, these attorneys “are not making money hand over fist, but for the number of hours they put in, they’re well compensated.” While salaries vary widely, the report estimates that lawyers working full-time at a secondment firm can make between $300,000 and $500,000 a year.

But lawyers must take on uncertainty by agreeing to be paid only for the hours they end up working, rather than a guaranteed salary. “It’s not for everyone,” says Erin Clary Giglia, the founder of Montage Legal, of the inconsistent, unpredictable workflow offered by many New Model firms.

What about the quality of the work? As a former corporate attorney myself, hearing “temporary” and “attorney” makes me think of the sullen individuals my old firm used to bring in to help review millions of pages of documents. But while some New Model firms offer such lower-level work, they are not like typical temp agencies.

“Our goal was to combine high-level work with a reasonable lifestyle,” says O’Malley. Seconded attorneys from her firm do primarily transactional work for clients such as Netflix, LinkedIn, and Facebook. In addition to seeking out sophisticated work, these firms charge rates that price their lawyers out of the document-review business, says Danielle Lackey, founder of the accordion firm Cadence Counsel.

Those rates, though, are a relative bargain, since they don’t have to cover the usual overhead—many lawyers at New Model firms aren’t put up in physical offices. On top of that, most of these lawyers are quite experienced, which means that hiring them is often a steal. In this second regard, New Model firms are dependent on traditional firms in the sense that they need their employees to arrive fully trained. Also, many New Model firms emphasize the Big Law credentials of their attorneys when pitching their services, driving home the message that clients are getting the same Cadillac, just at Ford prices.

Traditional law firms remain the top choice for bet-the-company litigation and complex corporate deals, but they are taking notice of all these developments. Fenwick & West, one such shop, is spinning off its own New Model firm that will offer lower-cost services for routine matters. Perhaps other Big Law firms will realize that they can be both Ralph Lauren and Polo, so that their lawyers can be workers and parents—or whatever it is they want to be outside of the office.