Does Your Part-Time Program Work? The PAR Usability Test.

Reduced hours policies can be useful to firms as recruiting and retention tools, but all too often, poorly designed or executed policies drive away talented attorneys. PAR’s usability test is designed to test whether a firm’s reduced-hours policy is usable and effective. The PAR usability test employs six basic measures. The first two are direct measures of usability; the second two measures are designed to test for the presence of two common problems; the final two measures are indirect tests of whether a firm’s policy is successful in achieving retention goals.

The Test:

  • Usage rate, broken down by sex
  • Median number of hours worked and duration of the balanced hours schedule
  • Schedule Creep
  • Comparison of the assignments of balanced hours attorneys before and after they reduced their hours
  • Comparative promotion rates of attorneys on standard and balanced hours schedules
  • Comparative attrition rates of attorneys on standard and balanced hours schedules

The discussion below addresses each of these six measures of a usable part-time policy.

1. Usage Rate

A low usage rate is a strong signal that a firm’s culture makes the use of hours options undesirable, either because of schedule creep, or because of adverse career consequences perceived to accompany a decision to reduce hours, or both. It is important to look at the number of men working reduced hours; even a high usage rate will not signal an effective, nonstigmatized part-time program if no men are willing to use it.

Only 5.4% of the attorneys in the law firms listed in the National Directory of Legal Employers work reduced schedules in 2007, compared with 13.59% of professional employees as a whole, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for the same year. Retaining a few lawyers is certainly better than retaining none at all, but a usage rate this low will not result in improving overall retention rates among mothers — and others — who seek a balanced life.

Moreover, research in social cognition reports that, when women are substantially outnumbered in a predominantly male environment, the tendency is for a few superstars to be treated very, very well, whereas most others drop off the map — even women who are fully as qualified as are the males in their class. Firms need to ask whether their existing part-time programs have this "superstar problem": whether successful use of their part-time policies is limited to a handful of exceptional performers. In this context, the firm stands to lose from its pool of talent many women who are at least as talented as the men who ultimately make partner.

Some firms consciously discourage use of balanced hours options for fear that "if we make it easy to go part-time," the floodgates will open. In fact, this has not happened at any firm, as is discussed in Section IV of the Final Report.

2. Median Hours Worked and Duration of Balanced Hours Schedules

A common assumption is that the "responsible" way to work balanced hours is to work an 80% schedule for only a limited period. Firms that structure their reduced-hours programs around this assumption likely do not have a usable policy that will result in decreased attrition.

A survey by the ABA showed 46.8% of associates at large firms nationally work more than 60 hours per week, which translates into a 48-hour week for a typical 80% "part-time" schedule. Even at firms where associates bill an average of 2,000 hours per year — as is common in the Washington area — part-time attorneys work about 40 hours per week to make their billable targets. Given the low percentage of mothers in the labor force who work substantial overtime, this is not a schedule that will prove effective at retaining women in proportionate numbers. Moreover, the assumption that lawyers will reduce their hours only for a limited period is problematic. The Massachusetts study found that the partners who responded to its questionnaire had been working a reduced schedule for an average of seven years (which probably meant that many partners had been working reduced hours for a much longer period).

For these reasons, it is important for firms to track the median number of hours worked, and the median duration of balanced hour schedules. (The median is chosen instead of the mean because this makes it less likely that the short hours or long duration of one person’s schedule will give a false impression of the experience of balanced hours attorneys considered as a group.) If firms find the median hours of balanced hours attorneys are in a range that would be considered full-time or overtime by non-law firm standards, their policies are not effective and usable. Similarly, if firms find the median duration of balanced hours schedules is short, a few months to a year, their policies probably will not be effective retention tools.

3. Schedule Creep

Schedule creep – the tendency of part-time hours to creep back up to full-time levels while pay remains reduced – is one of the major reasons attorneys leave law firms rather than seeking balanced hours, and that attorneys on reduced schedules give up and decide to leave their firms. Indeed, some lawyers have suggested that schedule creep is part of a semi-conscious policy to undermine reduced-hours schedules, to ensure that few people opt to work less than the standard schedule.

Measuring schedule creep is an indispensable step to implementing a usable and effective policy of balanced hours. Surprisingly few employers keep track of it, although it is easy to do. Firms that have demonstrated a substantial commitment to making balanced hours work have done so for some time. Records already exist documenting how much time each attorney works; all that’s required is to compare the hours worked with the hours budgeted. If the comparison shows that attorneys on nonstandard schedules are consistently working more hours than their balanced hours agreements call for them to work, then schedule creep is undermining the effectiveness and usability of the policy.

4. Comparison of Work Assignments

"Assignments determine skills, skills determine advancement." If balanced hours attorneys do not get quality work assignments — and many report they do not — their development will suffer. Moreover, if balanced hours attorneys are shifted to nothing more than low-level, routine matters, they will soon become disenchanted and leave the firm.

Both Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche keep track of whether those on alternative schedules are receiving high quality assignments by assessing whether they are assigned to work with the firm’s largest and most valuable clients. This is a rough initial test that can signal whether a nonstandard schedule negatively affects the quality of assignments. It is not a perfect measure, for sometimes balanced hours attorneys are marginalized in other ways — by being assigned rote tasks, or only small parts of larger matters. Perhaps the best test is to compare the assignments an attorney received while working a standard schedule with those he or she received while working reduced hours. (For new hires, the attorney’s assignments can be compared to those of other attorneys at the same level in the same practice group.)

To compare work assignments, firms need only look at the billing records of balanced hours attorneys. If too much rote work and too little client contact is evident, for example, firms know their policies are likely not effective and usable.

5. Comparative Promotion Rates

Most law firms now hire entering classes composed of roughly equal numbers of men and women, yet 2007 data show that 83% of partners are still men. One factor contributing to the low proportion of women partners is the practice, de facto or de jure, of taking reduced-hours attorneys off the partnership track.

As noted, numerous attorneys view reduced-hour work as ending all hope of partnership. Firms should test the accuracy of this perception by comparing the promotion rates of attorneys on balanced schedules to those on standard schedules. While the promotion rate will not necessarily be identical for these two groups, a persistent imbalance in favor of standard hours attorneys may well indicate that balanced hours attorneys are being penalized in terms of promotions.

6. Comparative Attrition Rates

The final element of PAR’s test compares the attrition rates of attorneys on balanced schedules with those of attorneys on standard schedules. A Massachusetts study found that, given the problems with existing part-time policies, the attrition rates among reduced-hours attorneys were even higher than among other attorneys. While men with standard schedules had an attrition rate of 9% and women working standard schedules had an attrition rate of 12% in 1997 and 1998, women working reduced hours averaged nearly 23%. These figures suggest the usefulness of a comparison between men working full-time, women working full-time, men working part-time, and women working part-time. Given the intense demand for reduced hours, if the attrition rate among attorneys working reduced hours is significantly higher than for the other groups, this may signal problems with the existing balanced hours policy.