Breaking the Mold – Enabling Quality of Life in the Legal Field: Two Firms’ Experiences

By Jean Ohman Back & Zan Tewksbury
Originally appeared in November 2000 OSB Bulletin

Oregon lawyers don’t have to look very far to find examples of excellence in policies and practices that enable attorneys to achieve a more balanced life. One of the goals of the OSB’s Quality of Life Committee is disseminating information about the best practices that firms and individuals can adopt in order to achieve a balance between career interests, avocational interests and family. In order to further that mission, the committee now highlights two firms the authors know best.

An innovative employment success story

Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt has attorneys in Portland, Vancouver, Seattle and Bend. Like most large law firms, Schwabe has struggled with how to offer policies that allow its employees and shareholders to achieve a better quality of life. The firm has had to overcome long-established perceptions about an associate’s role in the firm. Like most law firms, it has seen good attorneys leave for a more balanced lifestyle. Schwabe has experimented with different types of employment relationships to find the right fit. Recently, it established a part-time policy to set standards and expectations for those attorneys who want a reduced workload.

The success story for Schwabe has been its remarkable ability to hire and maintain long-term relationships with part-time attorneys and legal staff. The key for Schwabe has been its flexibility in negotiating these arrangements. Schwabe’s part-time arrangements are vastly different, but work well for the individuals and the firm. The elements that have made these relationships successful include:

  1. Schwabe’s willingness to negotiate the terms of the different relationships with the employee.
  2. The realization that part-time work can actually be profitable and make sense in certain practice groups.
  3. The flexibility of both Schwabe and its attorneys regarding work hours. The attorneys generally work a set number of days. They work additional hours as their projects require, but take compensatory time for hours worked in excess of their expectation.
  4. Each attorney’s practice group works well with the part-time attorneys. The firm accepts and respects these attorneys.
  5. The willingness of Schwabe to continue these relationships without the promise of imminent future full-time employment.
The ability of a large law firm to offer flexible and part-time work arrangements is especially commendable in an era of rising legal salaries and higher billable hour expectations. The recent salary increases seen in the Portland market are not necessarily the desire of all associates in large firms, especially when the salary increases come with the price of more billable and non-billable time. Each person has his or her own point when more money just isn’t worth the opportunity cost. The courage to break the mold that assumes that all associates have the same salary and quality of life expectations is unique and especially noteworthy.

The small firm perspective

Founded in 1974 as Steenson, Parkinson & Lee, the six-lawyer Portland firm of Steenson, Schumann, Tewksbury & Rose has always recognized the value and importance of balancing career, family and avocational interests. As a natural outgrowth of its progressive roots, flexible staff and attorney work arrangements have long been part and parcel of the firm’s employment policies, resulting in higher job satisfaction and much lower-than-average turnover among staff and attorneys. Low staff turnover in turn reaps benefits for the small firm, as less time and fewer resources need to be devoted to retraining, meaning the attorneys can dedicate precious hours to their practices.

The firm’s CFO, Mike Schumann, whose practice is about 50 percent domestic relations cases, has long adhered to the philosophy that maintaining a balance between the firm’s business and the family life of its employees — staff and attorneys alike — is essential to the overall health of the firm. Schumann’s job is not an easy one. As with other attorneys involved in the running of small firms, he must always keep an eye on that bottom line. Still, flexible full- and part-time work arrangements have worked well over the years, even as the firm has expanded.

One example of a successful flexible work arrangement at Steenson, Schumann, Tewksbury & Rose involved the desire of one attorney temporarily to spend one day a week out of the office for the purpose of spending time in her child’s classroom at school and pursuing her passion for dance in order to manage mounting stress from overwork. In exchange for this arrangement, the attorney member offered to reduce her share of firm overhead by moving to a smaller office and reducing her use of secretarial support. The attorney furthermore agreed to provide backup and litigation support to her colleagues, rather than acting as lead attorney on cases. Finally, the attorney agreed to share in a prorated percentage of firm profits for the year. The attorney eventually returned to her full-time practice refreshed, and with important stress management techniques in hand.

Allowing flexible attorney work schedules in a small, plaintiffs’ litigation firm is no mean feat; however, the firm found a way to provide the needed balance to one of its members, while continuing to receive the value of the attorney’s contribution to the firm.

We know that these are only two stories of many to be told about those people or firms who enable others to balance their work and family pursuits. Let us know about other firms or individuals that we may highlight in future columns. Specific information should be sent to the Quality of Life Committee, c/o Jean Ohman Back, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, 1211 S.W.Fifth Ave., Portland, Ore. 97204-3795.

Jean Ohman Back practices education and workers’ compensation law at Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt in Portland. Zan Tewksbury is a shareholder in Steenson, Schumann, Tewksbury & Rose, where she practices employment and civil rights law.