The Corporate Counsel Work/Life Report

Executive Summary

Work in corporate law departments has become increasingly popular and prestigious. Attorneys employed in law firms seek in-house positions because of the type of work, to be part of a strategic decision-making team, to have a proactive role in counseling clients, and, many say, to have a better quality of life.As reported in PAR’s interim report issued last March, those who move to corporate law departments to have a better quality of life may be disappointed.

This study focuses on whether, and the extent to which, the quality of life in house is better than in law firms. It seeks to answer whether in-house attorneys can better balance their work and personal lives, what work arrangements assist them in balancing, and whether attorneys who work part-time schedules are stigmatized for doing so. It also examines how companies benefit from having attorneys with balanced lives, and provides best practices recommendations for companies that want to implement effective alternative work programs for their attorneys. Finally, it addresses the common assumption of law firm managing partners that in-house counsel, as clients, do not want to work with law firm attorneys who work part time.

The major findings of this final report are:

  • Full time in house often means a fifty-hour workweek, although this is changing in some companies.Fifty hours is a long week — except compared to a law firm, where billable hours can stretch even longer, and business development is expected in addition. Many attorneys who went in house seeking greater work/life balance are satisfied to find exciting work on what they see as a reasonable schedule, especially if weekend work is rare. This is the reality behind the common perception that going in house is more family friendly (or life friendly): hours in house are long, but still allow time outside the office for a life. Nonetheless, some corporate counsel do work law firm hours; one cannot assume that going in house will yield a more balanced schedule.Recent economic conditions, which have required law departments to do an increasing amount of work without a corresponding increase in resources, contribute to increasing work hours in some contexts, as does the influence of ingrained work patterns that attorneys from law firms bring with them. PAR heard from a number of in-house attorneys about law departments in which a nominal full-time schedule is 45-50 hours per week, but where attorneys work far more hours. These additional hours may be spent in the office, or may be hours during which an attorney is ìon call or working from home.
  • Many attorneys can find balance on standard work schedules.In-house positions vary tremendously in their ability to offer work/life balance — much more so than law firms.Three models of law departments help to understand the variability. Some law departments are run like high-hours law firms.Attorneys in departments of this type are most likely to report that they are not satisfied with their ability to balance. Other law departments operate like a typical corporate division, with average hours and the ability to work at least somewhat flexibly. Attorneys in typical corporate environments generally report satisfaction with their ability to balance. They find they have some leeway in the times that they begin and end their day, subject to the needs of their internal clients, and they can leave the office from time to time to take care of personal matters or work from home occasionally. The third type of department, the balance-supportive department, is discussed below.
  • A variety of alternative work arrangements can further help attorneys create balance. Part-time work does not play the same role in house as in law firms. In firms, the availability and quality of part-time programs is the crucial work/life issue — when one is working a sixty-hour week, finding a way to work fewer hours is the key to work/life balance. In-house attorneys can create balance in ways typically not available to lawyers in law firms, such as flextime, compressed workweeks and job sharing. While some typical corporate models of law departments may offer these options, they are most likely to be found in the third model, balance-supportive departments. Balance-supportive departments have deliberately implemented flexible work and alternative work arrangements as a business objective designed to improve retention and productivity.
  • Stigma plagues part-time work in house. In many law departments, part-time schedules are harder to come by, riskier, and more stigmatized than in law firms. PAR spoke with many in-house attorneys who said they would not consider working part time because they felt sure they would suffer in terms of status, assignments, promotion, and pay. PAR spoke with other attorneys who were expressly told they could not be considered for promotion if they were part time. Some attorneys expressed a fear of vulnerability if personnel reductions were made in the department, based on observations of other part-time attorneys who had been fired first. Still others had had their part-time schedules abruptly terminated, sometimes in a move by a new general counsel to eliminate all part-time schedules. Additional examples of part-time stigma included: getting ‘dog’ or routine work; receiving no bonus or only a small bonus that was disproportionate to the reduction in work hours; being evaluated more critically; and losing the respect of colleagues and supervisors.
  • Telecommuting is allowed in some legal departments, but the in-house environment presents some challenges to the potential telecommuter. A recent study by Catalyst found that nearly three out of four of the female and over half of the male in-house counsel surveyed wanted to telecommute, i.e. to work some hours or days from home. PAR did find some legal departments in which telecommuting is widely used. In general, though, formal telecommuting arrangements (as opposed to occasional hours or days working at home) are uncommon, and lawyers reported two challenges that may make telecommuting difficult. First, some reported that, unlike law firms, their employers have a ìculture of meetings they feel they have to attend. Second, others feel that their effectiveness depends on whether their in-house clients consult them before making business decisions, and that to ensure this consultation, they have to be readily available in the office.
  • Law firms’ assumption that clients will not work with part-time lawyers is often inaccurate. During its initial law firm study, PAR repeatedly heard from law firm partners that they would like to offer part time ìbut the clients wouldn’t stand for it. PAR tested this proposition in this study. Most in-house counsel stated they would not object to working with part-time outside counsel. Many expressed support for part-time work at law firms as an effective method to cut attrition at law firms, thereby preserving institutional knowledge and reducing the amount of time and money they must spend to educate new outside counsel. The key concern for in-house attorneys was that outside counsel be accessible when they were needed, and responsive to client concerns. Some in-house counsel noted that part-time attorneys could be more accessible and responsive than full-time attorneys who were often in trial, traveling, or were simply juggling a large number of clients.

In addition, this study examined work/life best practices used by a variety of companies for both their legal and non-legal employees. The best practices include:

  • Creating work/life programs that are individualized and fair. If alternative work arrangements are going to be effective retention and productivity tools, they need to allow the creation of individualized schedules that will address the balance needs of individual attorneys. Some may be able to balance by reducing or compressing their hours, but others may make use of several alternatives, such as compressing and telecommuting. Additionally, alternative arrangements need to be available to everyone who can make a business case for flexibility, not just mothers.
  • Effective implementation is the key to a successful program. Too often, companies stop their work/life initiative efforts once they have created their policies. Carrying the policies into effect is crucial. Some key implementation steps are leadership from the top, leadership from the middle, holding managers accountable for achieving the company’s work/life objectives, benchmarking, and providing resources to attorneys and their supervisors to use in planning and using alternative work arrangements.