Part-time lawyers on the increase

By Legal Eagle

There was heartening news today in the Legal Affairs section of the The Australian that there has been an increase in part-time positions for female lawyers in large law firms. It’s great that firms are preferring to offer part-time positions rather than haemorrhage talent as in the past.

However, there’s a nasty cynical part of me which wonders a few things.

First, what is the definition of “part-time”? As I’ve noted in the past, sometimes the reality of “flexible working practices” is not as rosy as it sounds: working four 9am-5pm days, and one day from 6am-1pm doesn’t give a person much leeway. I also wonder what proportion of “part-timers” work four or four and a half days?

Then I wonder what kind of practice areas the part-time workers are in. How many are in areas like Precedents, which involve the preparation of standard form contracts, legal documents etc? Precedents don’t involve client contact, so it’s easy to park part-timers there, but it’s a bit of a dead end area in terms of career progression.

I suspect some areas lend themselves much more to part-time work than others. For example, advisory legal work is more likely to give rise to part-time positions because there are not the same tight deadlines as in areas like Litigation or Mergers and Acquisitions.

I am a former litigator, so most of my experience is in that area. I think it would be very difficult to be a part-time litigator and work on big files, particularly if big files go to trial. (Similarly, I think it would also be very difficult to be a successful part-time barrister unless you had a very lucrative sideline in something else). You could job share – but in practice, I fear that it would often lead to matters slipping between the cracks because no one has final responsibility. Yeah, I’m a control freak, I admit it.

I’ve noticed that many of my friends who work “part-time” in corporate roles effectively work full-time. Like me, they want to make sure the job is done properly, and so if something runs into their day off…well, they make sure it gets done. I guess that’s probably just a hazard of being part-time.

Finally, I also wonder how many medium and small practices can afford to have part-time staff. I note that the practices in this survey were all very large firms, and I suspect that smaller firms may not be able to have such a high proportion of part-time staff.

So, it is good to see change, but I would like to have more information before I get too excited. Like the academic cited in the article from The Australian, I think there’s still a way to go, including banishing the dreaded billable hour as the business model of practice:

But RMIT University’s Iain Campbell, who has researched the work patterns of lawyers in private practice, believes there is a long way to go before flexible work becomes part of the mainstream.

“An increase is probably a good sign but it’s clear a lot more needs to be done,” Dr Campbell said.

Dr Campbell said partner expectations, expressed in billable hours targets, were impeding the move to flexible working practices.

“There’s an expectation as I see it within law firms that people can and should be doing enormous amounts of work and enormous volumes of hours,” he said.

“To some extent that’s a business model — it suits the business needs of law firms but it doesn’t suit the needs of employees, except in the sense that it gives them a high salary.”

You know I hate that six minute unit from my previous posts – it does a disservice to both clients and lawyers. One day, maybe I’ll be able to stop ranting about it! Hopefully.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *