For years, the married-with-children attorneys at law firms had an unspoken hall-pass that allowed them to leave school early, get notes from the other kids, and generally put in a few less hours of homework a day, and all the while maintaining equal rank with their single counterparts.
But, today, a more draconian economic environment has made billable hours the only measure for advancement in the workplace. Do the time and thus reap the benefits.
In the modern world, there’s less leniency for those who have chosen a level work-life balance that favors family over the firm.
So, when offices decide to champion work-life balance programs, the end result is often an uneven distribution of reward and, consequently, conflict among the ranks.
“Many Americans who work for companies that embrace flexible hours are confronting a sort of office class warfare,” The New York Times reports.
“Some employees have come to expect that the demands of their children, in particular, will be accommodated—and not all of their colleagues are happy about it.”
The NYT article cites the story of a 31-year-old associate, Megan, at a large law firm in Washington, D.C. Megan was forced to pick up the slack for a more senior attorney who had a part-time schedule due to child and family commitments.
Megan, married without children, managed the entire legal matter—and admittedly gained valuable experience—but soon found that the senior lawyer took all the credit.
“If the woman I was working with had said to me, ‘I’m going to be checked out, can you run everything?’ I would have been fine with that,” Megan told the NYT. Yet, the reality is poorly managed flextime programs can end up benefiting some to the detriment of others.
Deborah Epstein Henry, founder of Flex-Time Lawyers, told the NYT that resentment among those forced to cover for other employees is common. “It’s the reason that a lot of work-life balance programs fail,” Henry replied.
“In an ideal world, no one else is saddled with more work if their colleague works a reduced schedule.”
What can law firms do to encourage a productive and happy work-life balance among employees, but curb any ensuing resentment?
Most lawyers would argue that billable hours and bringing in business are the two most important measures for advancement within the practice of law.
And, many law firms create a culture around this idea. Hard work is rewarded through career development and bonus structures.
However, if your firm is uncomfortable with this cutthroat environment, create a clear policy outlining expectations for your associates—of all levels.
For your flextime employees, assign one employee to manage the schedules for everyone. This way, gaps are filled and no single person picks up the slack.
In addition, make hour and work product requirements clear from the outset of any flexible schedule program. Make these requirements (and the fact that your employees are meeting the requirements) transparent to the entire office.
Accommodate your married-with-children and single associates equally. For example, don’t scoff at a request by a single associate for vacation time taken in, say, Bali, when other married associates are also taking time off, but to explore the Grand Canyon with their children.
Require that employees take 100 percent of their vacation time and don’t judge how they spend it.
That being said, don’t excuse inferior hours or work quality in those associates with families. In the end, it’s up to the individual to juggle his home and work obligations while producing, in the least, a minimum required standard of excellence.
For those associates who seem to be struggling, arrange a meeting with the firm administrator to discuss options. Don’t let the first conversation between manager and employee occur during performance review time once a year.
As a law firm manager, keep track of and care about the continued success of your associates. Be mindful of time management issues.
Speak to employees about where they see their work and commitment to the firm in comparison to their peers. And, let them know where in the chain link you perceive their performance to be as well.
Sometimes just the appearance of an even hand is enough to curb resentment at your firm.