Thinking Outside the Clock – Creating Flexible Workplaces for Lawyers and Legal Support Staff

By Marvin D. Fjordbeck
Originally appeared in May 2000 OSB Bulletin

Dan Cooper may not look the part of a pioneer, but when it comes to supervising a flexible schedule office for attorneys and legal support staff, the general counsel of the Metro regional government is helping to chart new territory.

As the top lawyer for the nation’s only directly elected regional government, Cooper supervises an in-house office of six other lawyers, as well as two legal assistants and four legal secretaries. More than a third of the lawyers and support staff under the Metro general counsel’s direction works on some type of flexible schedule, whether working by job-sharing, working alternative hours or a reduced-hour work week, or by telecommuting.

That size of office and approach to work office scheduling is a far cry from 1987, when Cooper began work for Metro as the only lawyer in the office of general counsel. As a busy lawyer in a new government body, Cooper says he didn’t have time to ponder the idea of creating an office with such a flexible work environment. But since the mid-1990s, his office of general counsel has evolved into one of the most flexible working arrangements for attorneys and legal staff in the metropolitan area.

Cooper became open to allowing a more flexible hours legal office early in his tenure as Metro’s general counsel when a litigator who was obtaining excellent results left because of the physical toll the work was exacting. “I came to realize that if attorneys are not enjoying their work, they aren’t going to be doing it for you for very long, even if they are very good at it,” says Cooper.

So while interviewing in 1995 for a real estate lawyer for Metro’s newly created open spaces acquisition unit, Cooper was willing to try an experiment. A highly qualified applicant was interested in the position, but sought to work only three-quarters time. For its part, Metro was not yet sure of how much legal work would be needed for the new program, which had only recently been funded through voter-approved bonding. It seemed to the general counsel to be a good time to try out the part-time lawyer arrangement.

“That experience fed me,” Cooper says now after the arrangement proved beneficial for both the lawyer and the regional government. “I started to have the attitude that if you have child or have family matters that need attention, why not just take care of them so that later you can give your work your full attention when you’re here.”

Cooper certainly speaks from personal experience in that regard. Together with his wife, Sandie, he has raised five children in a blended family. “We really needed to learn how to juggle,” he says.

After the success of real estate lawyer in flexible hours, Cooper approved a telecommuting position for a legal secretary who made her home on Mount Hood, nearly an hour’s commute from Metro’s regional center building near the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. After that innovation also worked well, Cooper was willing to try out a job-sharing arrangement in which two legal secretaries share a support position for two senior lawyers.

Since that time, other lawyers have been able to take advantage of Metro’s flexible schedule. Now, one Metro attorney specializing in cutting-edge land-use matters works a reduced work schedule of 32 hours, which can be expanded as needs change. The lawyer can work from home by way of e-mail, voice-mail and the Internet. Another full-time lawyer telecommutes one day a week to allow him to care for his pre-school age daughter.

Even more changes are on the way for the in-house Metro legal department. The office of general counsel is seeking its first job-sharing attorney’s position, in which two lawyers will share one position and will service the same Metro departments that are now the clients of a single practitioner.

“It takes a commitment to do this, but it’s not magic,” explains Cooper. “It takes effort on the part of the lawyers, as well as some internal marketing to demonstrate that it can work.”

The flexible work arrangement approach for Metro attorneys is aided by Metro’s official policy advocating job sharing and other worker-friendly scheduling arrangements. Still, Cooper notes that the notion of flexible work arrangements has not always been an easy sell to Metro department heads, who must oversee work on such varied items as land-use and transportation planning, parks management, acquisition of property for greenspaces, management of the region’s solid waste and regulation of recycling facilities.

“There’s been some resistance from our clients, but I’m stubborn,” says Cooper, who adds that most client-departments have come to accept the flexible work arrangements when they see no loss of quality or productivity. “Most love it when they see the ultimate work product.”

Cooper admits that the Metro office of general counsel has a practice that might be particularly well suited to flexible hiring for attorneys. He notes the nature of the practice in the office includes a limited number of matters with strict court deadlines or the risk of significant monetary losses. But Cooper believes that allowing flexibility for lawyers and legal support staff is possible for most offices if they are willing to adjust their attitude about performing legal work.

“I’ve not been invested in the basic hierarchy approach to practicing law,” Cooper says. “I never believed in the mentality that lawyers must work only this one way or that one way.”

Besides, supervising a flexible work arrangement also fits the Metro general counsel’s own view of the best contributors to the modern, 21st Century legal work place.

“The people I respect the most are people who live a balanced life,” says Cooper, who is an avid road runner who covers between 40 and 50 miles a week himself and competes in several road races each year, including the infamous Hood-to-Coast long distance relay run. “I’m biased against an having an unbalanced lifestyle.”

Marvin D. Fjordbeck was senior assistant legal counsel for the Metro regional government and a former secretary of the Oregon State Bar’s Quality of Life Committee.