Small Law Firms, Women's Issues

Size Matters: Let’s Implement Five-Day Weekends at Small Firms (Or at Least Respect the Two)

As this is the first week after I made my New Year’s resolution, I can happily report that I am on track. Well, I did eat an entire coffee cake on New Year’s Day which probably did not fit within my new diet plan, but otherwise I am still resolute. Other than getting a hot bod for 2012, I have resolved to maintain a healthy work/life balance.

If I listened to the gospel of Facebook C.O.O. Sheryl Sandberg, I would worry that my resolution may stand in my way of attaining a leadership position. As some of you may recall, last January Sandberg identified “premature work-life balance concerns” as one of the three reasons many women fail to occupy the C-suite. As an example, Sandburg discussed a young woman in her office who was already worrying about how to juggle family, love, and work despite the fact that she was single and childless. (Way to kick a girl when she’s down, huh?) Vivia Chen, writing about Sandberg, agreed that there is an “increasing concern (maybe obsession) about the issue” of work/life balance among female lawyers and law students.

Luckily, I am not making this decision based on my concerns over hypothetical family obligations. No, I am just lazy and do not like to work. And I am not alone….

Whether out of laziness or (more likely) a concern for employee well-being and retention, Volkswagen recently implemented a policy that calls for Blackberry email service to be deactivated for employees in Germany when they are off duty. Such a drastic measure to ensure employee work/life balance, while rare, has sound economic justification.

In Europe’s biggest economy, where burnout is blamed for almost 10 million sick days a year, labor representatives want to limit the amount of time that employees spend responding to e-mails on weekends and during vacation.

A similar measure has been identified as a “Best Practice” by the Project for Attorney Retention. PAR recommends that law firms curb email use on the weekend, citing PriceWaterhouseCoopers as an example of a company making such an effort. When PWC employees log on for the first time on a weekend, they receive this message:

It’s The Weekend

Help reduce weekend mail overload for both you and your colleagues by working off-line in a replica of your mailbox.

Firm research has shown if you send a note, recipients will feel compelled to respond so, if actions/responses can wait until the next business day, change your work location to your Remote/Disconnected setting. This will hold your outbound mail until you change your work location back to In Office.

Or, if the PWC message is too extreme, PAR suggests that firms “require or encourage attorneys who send emails over the weekend to include a deadline. If it’s an emergency requiring immediate attention, so be it; if not, at least, the recipient can make an educated decision about whether or not to focus on the matter over the weekend.”

My small firm did not make any efforts to curb attorney email on the weekend. To the contrary, they expected employees to constantly watch their Blackberries and encouraged them to spend as much time in the office on the weekend as possible to show their commitment to client service (read: billable hours). Yet, a key reason that lawyers leave Biglaw to go small is for a better work/life balance.

I think that we should band together and promote a policy à la Volkswagen or PWC in small firms. Are you with me? Or, better yet, does your firm adopt such a policy? If so, I want to hear from you.

Best Practice #11: Respect Personal Time: Curb Email Use on Weekends [Project for Attorney Retention]

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 and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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