Biglaw, Billable Hours, Media and Journalism, New York Times, Perks / Fringe Benefits

Don’t Know If Law Firms Are ‘Cuddly,’ But Whatever

Skadden Arps teddy bear Above the Law blog.jpgYes, we did see Lisa Belkin’s “Life’s Work” column in yesterday’s New York Times, entitled “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms.” Truth be told, we didn’t find it terribly exciting, since most of the law-firm lifestyle improvements she mentions are ones that are familiar to ATL readers. We also shared the reaction of the WSJ Law Blog, which found it sort of random for Thursday Styles: “Since when did the NYT Styles section become a legal trade?”
But since the article has zoomed to the top of the NYT Most Emailed Articles list, with which we are obsessed, we’re compelled to write about it. Excerpts and discussion, after the jump.

Belkin’s article is aimed at a lay audience, so many of the specific items she discusses won’t be news to ATL readers. We have read the article, so you don’t have to, and have unearthed the more interesting tidbits. Let’s start with the thesis:

Over the last few years and, most strikingly, the last few months, law firms have been forced to rethink longstanding ways of doing business, if they are to remain fully competitive. As chronicled by my colleague Alex Williams in the Sunday Styles section earlier this month, lawyers are overworked, depressed and leaving.

Less obvious, but potentially more dramatic, are the signs that their firms are finally becoming serious about slowing the stampede for the door. So far the change — which includes taking fresh looks at the billable hour, schedules and partnership tracks — is mostly at the smaller firms. But even some of the larger, more hidebound employers are taking notice.

Belkin discusses the “FACTS” approach to billable hours developed by Deborah Epstein Henry of Flex-Time Lawyers. Again, not news to the readers of this site — but there is some interesting info about billable hours in a bygone era:

At nearly every large American firm, lawyers must meet a quota of hours. During the ’60s and ’70s, the requirement was between 1,600 and 1,800 hours a year or about 34 hours a week, not counting time for the restroom or lunch or water cooler breaks. Today that has risen to 2,000 to 2,200 hours, or roughly 42 hours a week. (Billing 40 hours a week means putting in upward of 60 at the office.)

FACTS is an acronym. Under Ms. Henry’s proposal, work time can be: Fixed (allowing lawyers to choose less high-profile work for more predictable schedules), or Annualized (intense bursts of high-adrenaline work followed by relative lulls); Core (with blocks mapped out for work and for commitments like meeting children at the bus); Targeted (an agreed-upon goal of hours, set annually, customized for each worker, with compensation adjusted accordingly); and Shared (exactly as it sounds).

The article discusses innovative new approaches to the billable hour that have been already discussed extensively in these pages (e.g., lowering or eliminating billable hour requirements, adopting two-track systems, etc.). It also mentions enhanced parental leave:

At Quarles & Brady, a firm with headquarters in Chicago, not only have billable hour requirements been eliminated, but parental leave has been expanded. Women can now take 12 weeks with pay, men 6 weeks. And that time can be divided, meaning a father can take a few weeks off when his baby is born and a few more after his wife returns to work.

Twelve weeks? That’s nothing. As ATL readers know, 18 weeks is the new 12.
There’s a shout-out to Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession:

A group of students at Stanford Law School, for instance, shook up the legal world in 2006 when they formed Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession. The Stanford group has more than 130 members, and other elite schools like Yale and New York University have formed chapters. The Stanford organization has published a ranking of firms based on how they treat employees; members vow not to work for those who don’t rate well.

Andrew Bruck, a president of the Stanford group, told the Legal Times: “Just because something always has been doesn’t mean that it always must be.”

Finally, the piece closes with mention of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and how they wouldn’t let the Grinch steal their Christmas:

A harbinger of changing times might well be the brief filed by the hard-driving white-shoe firm of Weil Gotshal & Manges of New York, asking a judge to reschedule hearings set for Dec. 18, 19, 20 and 27 of last year.

“Those dates are smack in the middle of our children’s winter breaks, which are sometimes the only times to be with our children,” the lawyers wrote.

The judge moved the hearings.

Weil: a little time off at the holidays, plus above-market bonuses for high-performing senior associates. What’s not to like?
Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms [New York Times]
The Legal Profession: Is There Something Happening Here? [WSJ Law Blog]

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