Beware the False Part Time
For some who have tried it, working part time turned out to be nothing but a fiction. Does this mean there’s no hope for the returning mother, the conscientious father, or the lawyer seeking a bigger slice of life?
All work and no play
If there’s one question that unites most lawyers, it’s how do I improve my work-life balance? Most lawyers I know like their jobs. They like the people they work with, the challenge, the variety and the intellectual stimulation. But the hours? The day long meetings, the all nighters, the unrealistic demands of difficult clients? These they could do without. In a survey I conducted recently, over 70 per cent. of respondents who were asked what they’d change about their jobs said, “the hours” and cried out for “a better work life balance”. And it’s no wonder. Presenteeism as a culture is still very much alive in this business, advances in technology mean you are reachable 24/7, and still the overriding measure of performance is the number of billable hours you log in a day.
It’s hard enough when you’re young, energetic and eager to please. The energy is there, the money is good, and the camaraderie from sharing the experience with your peers keeps you buoyant when times are tough. But fast forward a few years, throw a child or an ailing relative into the mix and the picture is quite different. The long hours take their toll and for many of you the benefits come at a much higher price: precious time away from those you love.
The seductive lure of part time
So it is no surprise that increasing numbers, particularly women returning to work after maternity leave, are looking to flexible working arrangements as a solution. It’s a solution that comes in many guises – the “four day week”; the “five days 9a.m. to 6p.m.” week; the “3 days in the office 2 days at home” week, to name but a few. Either way, they all allow something less than full 24/7 commitment and appear to present the ideal solution for any lawyer seeking a better balance. I say “appear” because that’s very much the perception of those going into the arrangement, and no less so of those still tied to the 70 hour week treadmill. And yet in many cases, the reality is quite different, as you’ll learn from Sue’s experience.
When part time working is more fiction than fact
Sue is one of those women you warm to immediately. She combines a gentle manner with a quiet assertiveness that is friendly and reassuring in just the right measures. And you just know she is an exceptional lawyer. There’s an air about her that instills confidence, competence and ok, I’ll admit it, even a little awe.
Sue is a senior associate in the Corporate Department of a Magic Circle law firm, recently returned from maternity leave after the birth of her second child, a cute bubbly little boy called Otis. “It was harder this time, leaving my baby at home,” says Sue, “but when I agreed my new part time arrangement I felt that as far as compromises go, it was a pretty good one”.
When the Partners agreed to Sue’s request to work 4 days a week, with Fridays off, she was pretty ecstatic. At least one day a week she’d be able to attend a baby and toddler playgroup, take her 3 year old to Twinkle Toes ballet school and assuage some of the guilt she felt about missing out on her kids’ lives every other day of the week. As an added bonus she’d also have one day a week to stay on top of things at home. Sue had visions of empty laundry baskets and towering stacks of ironed clothes; of meals prepared from scratch and a fully stocked fridge for the weekend; of more time to see friends and do things she loved. If there was such a thing as work life balance for a transaction lawyer, Sue was pretty convinced she’d come close to it.
How different the reality! Within two weeks Sue was logging on at home and answering ‘quick’ questions from colleagues and long calls from clients. Documents would arrive by courier, and emails infiltrated her inbox spreading panic through her nervous system and email management system in equal measure.
What started as the answer to her dreams rapidly exploded into a full blown crisis. Work phone calls on her day off multiplied, the pile in the washing basket reached a level that would not seem out of place in a New York City skyline, and baby Otis found himself all too frequently subjected to Baby Mozart on continuous play. After months like this Sue began to despair. To say she felt injured would be something of an understatement.
But there was insult too. When she was back in the office the way Sue felt treated only compounded her stress. Although working well in excess of her agreed part time hours, Sue was still very much treated as if she were a part-timer, with what she perceived as the inevitable consequences – exclusion from more interesting projects, glances of disapproval from many a colleague and just that feeling she got at meetings that she just wasn’t part of it all anymore. This was not the happy work life balance she’d imagined. What it was in fact, was the worst of both worlds.
The double bind of working part time
Most would agree that working part time comes at a cost. Aside from any reduction in benefits – like salary, pension, holiday and future earnings – many also experience the hidden costs of exclusion, loss of status or a narrowing of promotion opportunities. And yet many still opt for a part time arrangement because the benefits – greater flexibility, being able to ‘be there’ for loved ones – are worth it. Those who opt for such an arrangement recognize this as a trade off, but what they are less prepared for is the double bind of working longer hours on reduced pay.
This was Rachel’s experience too. Rachel is a friend of mine who is a litigation lawyer in a medium sized firm. She succeeded in getting sign off on what seemed like the ideal part time arrangement but in actual fact was far from it. Actually it was from Rachel that I first heard the expression ‘the false part time’ – a part time working arrangement where the disadvantages (reduction in status, salary and benefits) are a harsh reality and the advantages (more free time, greater flexibility) are bordering on illusory.
If not a part time arrangement, what’s the answer?
So if this is the reality, if part time arrangements are a fiction, what’s the answer? Does it mean there’s no hope for the returning mother, the conscientious father or the lawyer who wants to reduce their hours and get a taste of life? Are we as far away from the work life balance solution as we always were?
Both Rachel and Sue felt so. They found their part time deal so much worse they actually chose to go back to working full time, preferring to stay in the game on a full time basis (with its advantages) rather than live the fiction of a part time deal that was everything but. Their solution was to snatch pockets of flexibility on an ad hoc basis, for example by scheduling in meetings out of the office when they have an important school event or family moment. This is all very well if you are senior enough to be in control of your own diary, but what do you do if you don’t have that freedom, or feel this set up is too unpredictable?
Clarity in the office
If this is you, then all is not lost. The message here is not that part-time doesn’t work. The message is that in a demanding profession like law, you need to apply as much attention and care to negotiating the boundaries of your part time arrangement as you would to the next million pound contract you negotiate on behalf of your clients. That means asking yourself and your employer the right questions so that there is absolute clarity and commitment on both sides. Your questions to yourself might include:
– what do I want?
– what do I absolutely need to feel this is working (typically less than 1. above)
– what will I gain?
– What will I lose?
– How flexible am I prepared to be?
– Do I feel this deal is fair?
– which boundaries do I need to be fixed (e.g. no calls on my day off) and over which can I be more flexible (I’ll check my emails once on my day off) ?
– what are the experiences of other part time workers and what can I learn from these?
– How will I stay abreast of things without spending my day off in work mode?
Questions to your employer might include:
– who will cover my client work during my time off, and how will we explain this to clients?
– who will support me to maintain this arrangement?
– in what circumstances (if any) will I be expected to work beyond the arrangement?
– how will I be compensated for this extra time?
Clarity at home
There’s one other thing. The importance of clarity and managing expectations should not be confined to the office. Don’t underestimate the ease with which a well meaning spouse, excited at the idea of having you more available, dumps another ten things onto your to do list in the mistaken belief that you suddenly have an abundance of free time. It’s a common problem for career women who are the primary caregivers and shoulder most of the burden of managing the household. In this scenario the advice holds truer than ever: establish boundaries, and be clear and realistic not only about what your partner can and can’t expect from you, but also what you can and can’t expect from yourself.
Do you have a part time horror story you could share? Based on this experience, what advice would you give your fellow lawyers considering a part time arrangement?