May 4, 2015
By Jennifer B. Cona
Running a law firm is like running any other business. Law firms must balance client demand for legal services with attorney demand for quality of work and life. With a recent apparent attitudinal shift, attorney and paraprofessional staff values appear juxtaposed with client demands. Combine demographic realities faced by all workforces and a paradigm shift emerges. The provision of professional services to the public is changing, in part due to a cultural shift in consumer attitudes and in part due to changing realities of demands on limited time. Law firms need to recognize this new reality and take proactive steps in order to attract and keep talent and clients alike.
Demand for Work/Life Balance
Does this sound familiar: You finish an employee's favorable annual review, complete with a raise and bonus, only to have the employee say something along the lines of "the extra money is great but I'd really rather have additional leave time."
Traditional large law firm environments with required face time, long nights and weekend hours are becoming a thing of the past, at least in terms of what lawyers want in a long-term career. Long hours used to be a badge of honor and even a bragging right; new, young lawyers would boast about how many 24-hour shifts they worked, how they keep a fresh change of clothes in their office and discuss the merits of the office shower. It was almost a right of passage and even linked to self-esteem; your work (and therefore you) must be really important if there's not even time to eat or sleep.
Recently, it has become apparent that many attorneys are willing to accept less compensation for more realistic working hours or more annual leave time. It is not just Millennials who have this attitude. "Millennials" are generally categorized as between the ages of 15-34 while "Generation X" generally refers to those aged 35-55. These two age groups represent a large portion of any law firm's professional and paraprofessional staff and accordingly, their wants and needs demand attention if a firm is to stay competitive in terms of attracting and keeping talent.
Those responsible for hiring see this change in interviews. It was historically a major taboo to ask about vacation or other leave time during an interview. It was taken as a sign of weakness, lack of focus, and indicative of a person not willing to give 120 percent. Now, candidates are not afraid to ask, even in the first interview. They want to know right from the start what kind of work/life balance the firm values. To be sure, attorneys are now using their full annual leave time. Gone are the days of unused vacation time that may or may not roll over to the next year.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Although it feels foreign and even a little anti-capitalist, it can be a more realistic way to practice law and perhaps even eliminate, or at least reduce, attorney burn-out. Law firms of all sizes lose valuable attorneys every year to burn-out. Firms also lose very talented women attorneys who want to blend their professional life with a personal life that includes children. We all know the adage regarding the woman who goes back to work after maternity leave; the only thing "part-time" about her return is her salary. Being a successful attorney and having a family does not need to be an "either/or" proposition any longer. Male and female attorneys want to be involved in their children's lives, such as by coaching a sports team, serving on the PTA or school board or volunteering on a parent committee. Attorneys want the time off and/or flexibility to leave at 3 p.m. one day a week. When firms value a work/life balance, offer flex-time, part-time return to work post-maternity leave and telecommuting options, top talent can stay for the long haul. Firms of all sizes need to re-think their benefits packages to include these options and this kind of flexibility in order to stay competitive and remain attractive to today's new attorneys.
Client Demand and 'Urgent Care' Model
Directly juxtaposed, although not necessarily inapposite to this is a new culture of client demand for professional services at their convenience. Busy people are willing to make certain sacrifices in order to take care of personal issues without taking time off from work. We see it currently with the provision of medical services. Consumers are willing to give up rapport and history with a treating physician and instead see whichever doctor is on duty at the urgent care center because they can be seen at night or on the weekends—without having to interfere with their work schedule. It is a logical next step that the same client demand for this "urgent care model" will extend to law firms in the future.
In this instance, rather than attracting and retaining talent, the issue will be attracting and retaining clients. Clients often call and ask if our firm has "Saturday appointments." Right now, the answer is "no" but this will likely have to change in the not-so-distant future. Excepting certain areas of the law and certain time-sensitive matters, clients may not be willing to take time off from their work to have a consultation, prepare for trial, execute documents, etc. Like the urgent care medical facility, they will want to be seen after their work day ends or on the weekends.
So how does a firm accommodate attorney and staff demands for work/like balance and client demand for convenience? The answer would appear to be schedule and work-hour flexibility. The attorney who wishes to coach his child's basketball team can "trade" his two days per week of leaving the office at 3 p.m. for covering a late night for client consultations or a Saturday once a month.
Undeniably, this puts a good deal of strain on managing partners, office managers and Human Resources staff. Flexibility always does. It is far easier to have rigid rules and the larger a firm, the more "rigidity" is required. Firms will need to re-think their business and operating models to have a competitive edge. This is similar to the recent trend away from the old bastion of law firm purview—the hourly billing arrangement. Client demand has driven a new look at alternative billing arrangements, from flat fees, to recurring monthly retainers and other hybrid fee arrangements. To fail to offer alternatives is to effectively turn business away. The same will be true of extended hours for professional services; if a firm seeks to attract and keep new clients, a business model that includes evening and Saturday appointments will soon be necessary.
Demographic Realities: Elder-Caregivers
All businesses, including law firms, are already facing issues related to working elder-caregivers. Over 65 million Americans, or 29 percent of all U.S. households, provide care for an adult family member.1 The growing demographic problem is two-fold: the elderly are living longer (but not necessarily healthier) and people are working longer/retiring later. This combination results in a workforce that is struggling to maintain jobs while providing care for aging parents and loved ones.
Elder-caregiving costs employers $33.6 billion annually in lost productivity.2 Absenteeism costs the U.S. economy an estimated $25.2 billion.3 Working elder- caregivers routinely lose work time and wages due to providing care for an aging loved one. On the employer's side, businesses have to deal with not just decreased productivity but also absenteeism, downtime and turnover. Employees caring for ill, elderly or disabled loved ones must address such issues as a loved one's hospitalization, coordinating elder care services, and handling emergency elder caregiving responsibilities. This of course results in personal phone calls on the job, use and abuse of leave time, work hour adjustments, missed deadlines, poor work quality, sporadic attendance, and prolonged or frequent disappearances. "Presenteeism" is also an issue, that is, the employee is physically present on the job but is mentally somewhere else.
Law firms and other businesses need to approach the issue of elder-caregiving like the issue of child care in that it will impact half or more of any business' staff at some point in their career. Awareness is starting to grow. With the popularity of "Workplace Wellness" programs growing, law firms need to consider the tools and support mechanisms they will put in place to help working elder-caregivers, such as support groups, on-site emergency elder care, access to Elder Law attorneys and access to community resources.
Law firms and other businesses that provide assistance to working elder-caregivers can reduce their losses from decreased productivity, absenteeism and turnover and can help promote job security for the working elder-caregiver, which inures to the benefit of the employee as well as the employer. Firms who recognize this and take pro-active steps will be ahead of the curve and leaders in their fields.
Law firms need to re-think and adjust their corporate cultures in order to remain competitive in today's marketplace. While it may feel very much against the grain of traditional law firm environments, it may well be necessary in order to attract and keep talent as well as to attract and keep clients.
1. National Alliance for Caregiving Study, AARP Research on Caregiving in the United States, www.aarp.org.
2. MetLife Mature Market Institute Study: "Metlife Study of Working Caregivers and Employer Health Care Costs," www.metlife.com.
3. Gallup poll: "Caregiving Costs U.S. Economy $25.2 Billion in Lost Productivity," www.gallup.com/poll/148670.
Jennifer B. Cona is the managing partner of the elder law and estate planning firm Cona Elder Law. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.