Associates in the Trenches

Part-Time Possibilities


Nancy l. Margolis is one of those associates you have heard about but have never met—the associate who works part time.

Beginning in 1997 with the birth of her first child, she negotiated an 80 percent schedule with her Philadelphia firm. She dropped to 60 percent with the birth of her second child and today clocks in between 15 and 20 hours a week as an hourly employee.

Her firm sees the arrangement as temporary, and Margolis says she may go back up to full-time work, climbing back on the partnership track, when her children are older.

It’s no secret that Margolis is in the minority. Although many associates report wanting to work less—and numerous law firms tout part-time plans—it seems the desire and the offering rarely meet. Out of 625 law firms surveyed by the National Association of Law Placement in 2003, only 5.4 percent of associates worked part time.

So why aren’t more associates leading the call for reduced work hours? Experts say it boils down to fear. There’s a stigma attached to part-time work, says Joan Williams, a law professor at American University’s Wash­ington College of Law and co-director of its Project for Attorney Retention. Sexism only contributes to this stigma, she says, because many lawyers seeking part-time situations are women with child care concerns. She also cites the fear of getting bad cases, bad office space and being excluded from important meetings.

Resentment is another frequently mentioned concern. No one wants full-time colleagues to complain about having to work nights and weekends because part-timers bailed early. Likewise, if part-time lawyers are kept on the partnership track, it can raise eyebrows among the full-time set, says Elizabeth K. Dorminey, a Georgia employment-defense lawyer. “A system where somebody stays on the partnership track, even though they’re putting in a lot less blood, sweat and tears than their colleagues, is bound to lead to some resentment from those who put in longer hours.”

“The management concern is that they might have some exposure if they are treating a population that’s not the same, in terms of hours and effort, the same for purposes of partnership eligibility, particularly if it breaks down along gender lines,” she continues. “I would think the better practice, particularly in really large law firms, where they can’t treat people on a case-by-case basis, is something more along the lines of the dreaded mommy track.” Part-timers on this track often have a longer path to partnership or are eligible for promotion only to non-equity positions such as senior associate or of counsel.

Dorminey speaks from experience. As an associate she decided that she wanted to telecommute from her home in Athens, rather than go to work every day in Atlanta, and took an of counsel position with her firm.

“It’s a choice I made,” she says, adding that children influenced the decision. “I think [part-time practice] will grow into being more acceptable, and interestingly I think the men are following the women’s lead. The profession … is becoming more rational as time goes by.”

PERMISSION GRANTED

At Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky, this rational approach is already a routine. The Washington, D.C., law firm has a part-time program open to all lawyers, regardless of the reason, says managing partner Michael E. Nannes. Part-time associates stay on the partnership track and agree to work a percentage of hours. If their hours go over the agreed amount, Nannes says, they’re paid extra.

Fear of the unknown is why few firms have similar policies, according to Nannes.

“People think the clients aren’t going to like it, because they want their lawyer available full time,” he says. “We’ve found that clients seem to be much happier when their lawyers are not available because of the part-time arrangement, rather than [because they’re] working for another client.”

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