If you ask a small-firm attorney what is the advantage of a small firm over Biglaw, most will tell you that smaller size makes firms more nimble and better able to adapt to client needs and market changes. It stands to reason, then, that small firms could revolutionize the law firm model. But what changes should small firms make? And how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

To answer these questions, I spoke to Mae O’Malley, founder of Paragon Legal, and a visionary when it comes to offering legal services. Paragon Legal is one of the fastest growing alternative legal models. Their model is to offer highly-qualified attorneys (with a minimum of 8 years of experience) to Fortune 500 companies, akin to a contract-attorney arrangement.

This model allows the client to obtain top-notch legal help for a fraction of the cost of Biglaw. The arrangement is also appealing to high-caliber lawyers, particularly women, who look to balance their professional growth with their family obligations. In light of the model’s success, it’s not surprising that Fortune recently featured O’Malley as an individual “fixing a broken legal industry.”

What advice does Mae O’Malley have for reforming legal workplaces?

I asked O’Malley for insights into how small firms can evolve and how they can avoid the common problem of losing talented women at senior levels. Here’s what we discussed.

(1) Do you think it is possible to be a successful lawyer and mother? If so, how do you define success in both categories?

Absolutely. I think with both being a lawyer and a mom, success is measured in several ways — are you performing the job to the best of your ability? Are you deriving some reasonable level of satisfaction and fulfillment from your job? Are your clients pleased with your services?

As a mom, your clients are your kids. And they are the toughest clients there are. What I really don’t like is the notion that women have to do it all, and I particularly don’t like the expression “superwoman” because it puts so much pressure on women to do it all well with a smile on. It’s absolutely possible to be a successful lawyer and mom at the same time, but there are going to be things you give up in both jobs, and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that you’re going to be the very best at your job and also the very best mom in the world. And I don’t even really know what it means to be the very best mom in the world.

(2) Do you think there is still a stigma attached to being a part-time female lawyer? For instance, I have heard women, particularly those who have opted to become staff attorneys for the better schedule, referred to as attorneys on “mommy track,” and they are sometimes taken less seriously.

Yes, you are still going to find a lot of people out there who are going to make some pretty negative assumptions about part-time women attorneys (or part-time women anything for that matter). Part of this is due to the way part-time roles have worked in the past. Often, being part-time meant you took the grunt work because it was assumed that a part-timer couldn’t handle time sensitive matters or large complex matters. But I have seen first-hand how that assumption can be changed.

In our particular model, we only work with senior attorneys with at least 8 years of experience, including in-house experience. We have attorneys who are handling what are ordinarily full-time jobs in 30 hours/week. When you know you’ve got to cut-out at 3 to get the kids, you can be incredibly efficient. You eat lunch at your desk, don’t gossip about TV at the coffee maker, don’t get involved in office politics, and figure out exactly who your point person is for what. It’s incredible what you can get done in 30 hours when you’re focused like that.

We also have attorneys that are working a full 40-hour week, but they are time-shifting and doing it in chunks that a typical firm/company might not accommodate. For example, working 9 a.m.-3 p.m. and then 8-10 p.m. Since the whole world now works 24-7, you’re still going to catch a lot of your clients online at night. It might not sound ideal, but lots of our attorneys are wiling to work a few hours at night after the kids go to bed so that they can get their kids from school and help with homework. In that way, I think we’re really helping to educate clients that if you pick the right resources and give them the room to determine how they will get the work done, you are going to have a very effective, responsive, and ultimately happy resource.

Too many firms and companies are stuck to this notion of 60 hours/week of face-time in the office. They don’t realize how much their retention rate for women would improve if they just allowed a little time-shifting and flexibility. I think women working part-time also need to be very cognizant of the fact that they are setting the precedent for other women. Doing a sloppy job is just going to make it so much harder for the next woman to convince someone to let her work part-time. We’re all ambassadors and we need to remember that.

(3) Is it really possible to be a part-time lawyer or an attorney with a reliable schedule given that law is a service industry?

Absolutely. Depending on how much you can work, the type of work you can handle might change, but the vast majority of work can be done very effectively part-time. Sales deals can be one exception. Often those deals move so fast and the clients are so demanding about turn-around that part-time can be a challenge. So we’ll reserve outbound sales projects for our attorneys who can be onsite for 40 hours/week. Even at 40 hours/week, compared to the usual 60-ish hours/week that many in-house and firm jobs demand, our attorneys are feeling pretty good about their schedules, especially because the 40 hours are usually done on a set, predictable schedule (e.g., 9-5 or 8-4).

Similarly, time-shifting can be very effective. If done correctly, a client likely does not realize that the attorney is time-shifting, or has suffered at all from the fact that the attorney is time-shifting. Again, you have to have resources that are going to be able to handle a part-time or time-shifted schedule in a mature, professional way. Not every woman is going to be able to do it effectively, and for those women, unfortunately they’ll need to make a choice as to how they choose to focus their time at any given period in their lives.

(4) What is the value to an organization, law firm or company, of having female attorneys? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to have men who do not need to balance family obligations (assuming that women with no family obligations are more rare) who can work the maximum amount (this is most relevant in law firms as measured by billable hours)?

There is substantial research that shows that diversity in an organization is critical to optimal problem-solving. Being able to draw upon the thinking of a group of people coming from different backgrounds and experiences means you’re going to have a level of creativity and ingenuity that is not possible when everyone is coming from the same mindset. In addition, you’ll provide better service and better products to the extent your workforce can relate to their potential customers and clients.

So diversity — including gender and racial — is incredibly important. Top organizations know this, and that is why they are trying so hard to figure out how to retain women. Although they may have identified the problem, I think they are still trying to figure out the solution. In addition, research also shows there are diminishing returns once someone works a certain number of hours in a day. We’ve all experienced this — past 10 or 12 hours/day, you’re spinning wheels and your output is going to be of increasingly poor quality the longer you work. So if you’ve got a resource that can work 30-40 really solid, quality hours in a day, the only difference between that resource and someone who sits in the office for 60 hours is face time.

(5) Small law firms do not have the same bureaucracy as in Am Law 200 firms and it is easier to implement new initiatives. Given that and what you have learned through creating Paragon Legal, do you have any advice for small firms about how to improve their promotion and retention of females?

Per my answers to (2) and (3) above, I think just giving women a little flexibility goes a long way. Even if you’re going to require them to bill 2000 hours/year or work 50-hour weeks, giving them a few hours in the middle of the day to go get the kids and eat dinner with the family goes a long way — it goes a long way for the mom and for the family — yet can be done in a way that does not impact responsiveness to clients. Communication is also key. Ask the women at the firm what would make a difference for them. To the extent the firms makes accommodations, characterize those to the rest of the firm in a way that does not negatively stigmatize that accommodation.

(6) What advice do you have to young female associates about how to succeed in their firm? To position themselves to go in-house?

No matter what you do, you have to do the best you can do, and be very detail-oriented. I don’t care if it’s the law or something else. If you don’t do a good job at it, you’re not going to get promoted, and you’re not going to get noticed by the client who is trying to hire in-house.

In terms of going in-house, I think you need to be strategic from a pretty early stage about practice areas. I started as a litigator at MoFo, and it was a total stroke of luck that I was able to go in-house and get trained by my boss on licensing. I moved during the boom days and I think that’s the only reason it happened that way for me. We see lots of people who want to move in-house, but just don’t have experience in the right practice areas. Of course, this isn’t to say that you should only pick an area that will get you in-house. But if you want to go in-house, you are going to need to be strategic. Currently, having a strong commercial transactions, corporate transactions, marketing, privacy, or compliance background is going to be ideal for getting in-house.

(7) To the extent you can answer this, do you have any feeling for whether small firms are better or worse places for women to practice? I struggle with this because there is a lack of information when it comes to small firms, but I am always interested in people’s opinions.

I think large firms can be a very hard place for women because there is tons of overhead, the issue of partner profits, and other issues that necessitate large firms trying to squeeze as many hours as possible from their attorneys. Large firms also tend to have an up or out model which can be hard for women who want to stay but don’t want to make partner. Small firms can be better in that overhead is lower and partners are okay with lower profits, so they may not financially need to drive their associates as hard.

But I also think it depends on practice areas and in the end, on management and how they approach the issue of work-life balance. There are certain areas that you could practice in at large firms where I think you could actually be pretty happy and not have to work totally insane hours. And there are small firms where you’re going to work like a dog and just not get paid as well as if you were at a large firm.

(8) What needs to happen to fix the “broken industry” that you discuss in your Fortune article?

I think across every industry in America, we are having a major crisis in priorities. Public companies are laser-focused on profits because shareholders demand continual growth. I don’t see that priority changing, so the only way you’re going to fix the work-life balance situation is to convince companies/firms that providing more work-life balance is better for the bottom line.

First, it is very expensive to replace workers who leave, especially when they have a special skill set that is hard to find. Think about headhunting fees, time/resources spent training, et cetera, et cetera. Research shows that the leading reason people leave companies is a lack of work-life balance. Second, research also shows that happier people are more productive people. Particularly with women, I think if they are given a little support and flexibility, they can be the most loyal employees in the world. Finally, as discussed above, you’re going to get better ideas and ultimately be able to sell more services and products when you have a diverse workforce.

* * *

Small firms, take note. We are uniquely positioned to revolutionize the traditional law firm model. Look how well it turned out for Paragon Legal. Let’s not waste this opportunity.

Oh, and I am still awaiting a response about the woodchuck.

Fixing a broken legal industry [Fortune]


When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.


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