Part-Time Lawyer or Full-Time Dissident? Opportunities and Obstacles of Practicing Law Part-Time

"Lawyers are no longer afraid to face the stigma that 'we cannot practice law part-time.'" - Joan Williams, Law Professor

Photo by Melinda Gimpel on Unsplash.

A new sect of dissident lawyers has risen in recent years, working against the authoritarian state of an outdated loyalty to firms for 30 years and the commitment to working 60 hours a week. Is it possible that the new reality is a part-time partner delegating research and clocking billable hours from his sofa? Well, let’s see how feasible this is. The truth is that most lawyers work full-time, usually exceeding 40 hours a week or for some, committing up to 80 hours per week to their large firms.

Over the past decade, some brave lawyers have been calling meetings with partners and dishing out their new work schedules, transitioning them into part-time attorneys. These lawyers set a plan for hours they will be available for in-office work, factoring in when they can concentrate best when they’re needed for commitments in their personal lives (related to childcare or family), and what they need to prioritize time-wise. With a yes and an amen, these lawyers take the back seat to long hours and find themselves committed to their family life and hobbies all the while having a fulfilling legal career and being dedicated to their clients and colleagues.

A part-time lawyer sets forth a work schedule with their firm that will set them up to meet necessary commitments—personally and professionally—while working fewer hours, about 20 to 30 hours a week. Although part-time law seems like a secret, there are practical ways to achieve the part-time schedule you are looking for. There are a couple of suggestions to help your firm grant you the part-time option. These examples include developing mentors in your firm who respect part-time employees, picking a specialty law that requires your services and expertise to flourish, creating a good track record of professionalism with clients, making yourself incredibly marketable, and preparing your workplace for part-time servicing and acceptance. Joan Williams explains no longer are lawyers afraid of the classic stigma that “we cannot practice law part-time” and that “part-timers cost the firm money” because both contentions are untrue. “

Part-Time on the Rise Since the 90s

Since the late 90s, men, but specifically women, at many firms have stretched themselves thin and have faced roadblocks with their home lives to stay committed to their full-time careers in law. However, the legal field, and the working world, have evolved and, increasingly, call for lawyers to step back and smell the roses.

Millennials, single-handedly, started the trend of leaving their jobs to take a new opportunity, and Gen Z is right behind them.  LinkedIn reports of 2023 show that more than half of U.S. workers, about 61%, are considering leaving their current job, noting that a higher percentage of millennials (ages 26-41) are planning to call it quits compared to other generations. Millennials are no longer tied to their positions at firms they’re unhappy at. Having a new job every couple of years is the new norm, whether we like it or not. According to The Lawyer Whisperer, “the average tenure of a law firm associate used to be between 7-8 years (typically when partnership decisions were made). Today, it is between 2-3 years.” This frequency correlates to generational expectations as we see young attorneys move more and seasoned lawyers stay put longer.

In 2009, there was an uptick in lawyers known as flex-time lawyers who fought for part-time hours with hopes of avoiding being swallowed whole by the deficient economy of 2008. The goal was to remain with a firm, and part-time or flex-time seemed to be the best move, according to Joan Williams, co-director of the Project for Attorney Retention (PAR). Lawyers were working with the schedule flexibility they wanted, while firms reduced their salary costs during slow seasons. Advocates for reduced-hours schedules said, “Part-time work was the best way to avoid layoffs during the economy’s fall”.

The workforce dynamics have come a long way. As there are increases in the number of women becoming attorneys, having children and families must coexist with billable hours. The famous question every female law student asks a female lawyer is, “Can you do both? Can you be a mom, a wife, and a successful lawyer?” The answer is surprisingly yes, because of part-time careers. Working a reduced-time schedule is still largely the prerogative of women lawyers, says Montage Legal Group. In 2012, 89.4% of associates working part-time were women; among partners working part-time, 65.1% were women. However, many men have transitioned to a part-time schedule after the pandemic.

Men and women have conjured up a strong desire to work from home (WFH) after the COVID-19 epidemic during 2020 and beyond. According to the CDC, the number of WFH employees spiked to a whopping 38% of all employed persons, including men and women. Stuck at home, people had to take on the role of teacher, babysitter, daycare worker, and more.  After all, if your child’s Zoom classes were at 11:00 a.m., and one parent had a meeting scheduled at 11:15 a.m., the other parent’s work had to wait.

The State-Specific Model

Does the ABA define a part-time lawyer as “of counsel”? Yes. According to the ABA, “one who practices law in association with a firm or other lawyer, but out of the mainstream of the other lawyers of the firm. This person’s part-time practice might originate from a change from full-time practice to part-time practice, or a change from a salaried position … to the part-time practice of law.” The ABA defines“of counsel” including part-time lawyers, where there is, “a relationship between a law firm and a lawyer who works part-time for the firm and devotes the balance to an otherwise solo law practice, teaching law, or an unrelated business endeavor.” According to the ABA, a lawyer is a lawyer no matter the hours.

Of the 50 states, 42 of them and the District of Columbia allow a path for admission to practice without taking the state examination for attorneys licensed to practice in another jurisdiction. Only five states require attorneys seeking admission on motion to practice full-time (40 hours per week) for a requisite number of years preceding their application: Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee.

States like Tennessee pose implications for lawyers who choose part-time careers—consistently pushing the ticket by requiring Bar applicants seeking admittance to have practiced full-time for five of the seven previous years. The Network of Enlightened Women, a conservative feminist movement fighting for women in politics and professions, petitioned the Tennessee Supreme Court to change its law, arguing it targeted female lawyers working part-time and at the same time, prohibiting their chances of moving to Tennessee and returning to full-time practice without a prior five years of full-time practice. The Tennessee Supreme Court published an order providing comments in support of removing the full-time requirement, including comments submitted by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners and the Tennessee Bar Association. While Tennessee allows for a motion into the BAR admissions system, it remains in the distinct minority of states restricting attorneys who have opted for less than 40 hours per week in admissions.

The fight to get Ohio and Tennessee on board with removing the full-time requirement for motions to waive into their states is ongoing, with the hopes that those states will one day join the other 23 states without a mandated hour requirement within certain time limits or at least join in with the few states that require less than 20 hours of practice per week before admission.

The ABA Model Rule on Admission by Motion doesn’t require full-time work. Instead, the only requirement is that the applicant has “been primarily engaged in the active practice of law in one or more states, territories or the District of Columbia for three of the five years immediately preceding the date upon which the application is filed.” The “active practice of law” includes “representation of one or more clients in the private practice of law.” Of the 6.2% of part-time lawyers at law firms, more than 70% are women. The five states holding this full-time requirement tend to make working mothers no longer eligible for reciprocity to the Bar.

The fight for occupational licensing is a problem across the board in many different occupations, and it doesn’t just end in the legal field, occupations like cosmetology, dentistry, and occupational therapy. Visit https://www.cato.org to find out more about the tangled mess of occupational licensing in the world of hair braiding.

Legal Challenges & Implications on Self-Governance

The maternal wall is a complex barrier where women have to choose yet again whether they want to have children or have a career. Sometimes known as the maybe baby effect, the maternal wall adversely affects pregnant women or mothers occurring towards young women who are not even pregnant or mothers yet, as expressed in the 2023 Cambridge University Press. Speer and Delacruz also write in the Cambridge University Press, “The maternal wall differs from the glass ceiling because it specifically pertains to biases that occur because of a woman’s parental or pregnancy status, and not because of other gender-based biases.” There is a disconnect between women having children and a career in the legal field. Surprisingly, 96% of law firms offer part-time work but in secrecy. The problem is that people rarely opt to work part-time because of these implications and biases.

Working part-time may mean less opportunity for a chance at making a partner. The Project for Attorney Retention (“PAR”) has seen reports of part-time lawyers (most of whom were women) “who were removed from the partnership track; who had to change practice groups because their original practice would not accept a part-time lawyer; or who did not get bonuses because bonuses were based solely on the number of hours worked.” In other words, the stigma surrounding part-time jobs is often profoundly daunting and can result in poor treatment compared to full-time lawyers. Despite this, both are researching the same and offering the same talents to clients. A massive fear of part-time is the pay grade or the lack thereof. Part-time lawyers are often at risk for “schedule creep,” where the part-time hours slowly become full-time hours, but the pay stays part-time. Schedule creep results in a lower per-hour wage, where “look-back” provisions to pay retroactively for hours worked could fix this; firms rarely offer it.

Ultimately, full-time attorneys are compensated at a rate that reflects their billable potential and work reputation. According to firms, the higher the billing potential, the better it is to have them. Schedule creep is minimized by the honesty and transparency of firms and their employees especially where the firm already has an implemented part-time model with set policies regarding pay for employees to refer back to. But this does not necessarily mean that the part-time attorneys are worth any less. When the schedule creeps up and the pay does not, a serious conversation is needed with firm management to implement the part-time policies.

Ethical interferences may also play a part regarding part-time lawyers and conflict of interest issues. The ABA Model Rules have yet to address this issue necessarily. However, the information gleaned from research poses a question of the lawyer’s ability to gain knowledge of their own firm’s skeevy malpractice or questions of fitness that the lawyer should know about if the lawyer was a full-time, in-office employee. As a self-regulating body of legal professionals, there is some weight to being involved in the actions of your firm and in-office enough to make sure you can report and regulate the possibilities of fraud, lying, embezzlement, crimes, and failure to act with the care outlined in rule 8.3 subsection (a) and (b) of the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility.

If part-time is discouraged, does this impact the legal profession and its accessibility? Well, fewer lawyers means less representation. Fewer people willingly enter the legal field because of the lack of part-time offers available, which causes them to search for careers that align with WFH hours as an incentive. Also, what is expected of lawyers by their clients, and can being a part-time lawyer reflect poorly on the firm’s relationships with their clients? According to Williams of Fordham University Law,” Clients hate high attorney turnover for one simple reason: it hurts their bottom line. A client invests a substantial amount of time and effort to educate a new attorney about the possible legal issues or business to develop a working relationship. Every time an attorney leaves, they take the client’s investment of money, time, and goodwill with them.” So, firing part-time attorneys with an array of clients who value and highly respect their relationships with their advocates is not the answer to client retention. Instead, clients expect precisely the way their attorney treats them to be aligned with the professionalism of the profession, to have communicative value, to focus on zealously advocating for the best interests of their client, making the length of phone calls and ability to meet in-person the second focus of attorney-client relationships due to part-time schedules of the attorneys.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

For cases like those in the More Than Part Time study in Massachusetts, the part-time lawyers reported they were often treated as part-committed and assigned minor, less sophisticated matters that the litigation department took on as a favor for clients. Supervisors sometimes don’t consider these attorneys to be “serious”. Or, partners kept asking when they were returning full-time if they happened to be out of the office one morning with their child. Also, the most commonly identified effect was that even with an average of 14 years of firm loyalty, 70% of the Respondents reported that their full-time colleagues view them as “lacking commitment.” With doubts about commitment, seriousness, and work ethic, there is no lack of expressive opinions and stereotypes regarding working females accommodating their children and their careers.

According to PAR, the stigma that “part-time costs the firm” is a false contention, using a poor business model, because savings attributable to reduced attrition far outweigh any arguable higher overhead costs. Experts note that when men and women leave firms due to family conflict, men are less likely to admit that family is the reason for going, causing a skewed model. This conflict illustrates a colossal communication void between firm management stereotyping their male and female attorneys. Thus, these business models demand change to meet the adequate staffing needs for clients, therefore firms will have to offer non-stigmatized part-time options to attract and maintain talented male and female lawyers.

Some firms have resorted to providing options for their current full-timers to work part-time when necessary to fit their busy at-home schedules. This means no more penalties for part-timers by keeping the partner track from them. Partner track withholding has resulted in part-time focused law startups.  LegalBee, Aggregate Law, and Hire an Esquire are some examples that provide legal assistance for clients without a long-term commitment. LegalBee’s website notes the benefits of part-time work: “Many attorneys love practicing law but get frustrated by the long hours, demanding clients, and office politics that often plague many legal environments. LegalBee allows freelance attorneys to create their schedule and pick which projects they work on, all while engaging in substantive legal work.”

Desires for a more balanced work-life balance created firms where both partners and owners worked together part-time, hiring out full-time attorneys as necessary. Like the firm founded by Erin Giglia and Laurie Rowen, who had different plans for lawyering when they had their children just a few months apart. Rowen says, “She knew she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom while continuing her legal career on an overtly part-time schedule.” The pair co-founded Montage Legal Group, a new legal business model especially attractive to women. Montage and similar firms allow lawyers to set their work terms. The part-time experience also eases the transition back into the profession full-time, if they choose to, when their children get older. “About 85 percent of Montage’s 300 freelance attorneys are lawyer moms who average 10 hours of work weekly,” Giglia said. “It’s a very sought-after way to keep a hand in the legal field while not having a punishing schedule.”

Another associate at Montage, Chelsea Beser, left her associate job to freelance when her first child was born while also teaching at Fordham University School of Law. Baser maintains 10- to 20-hour work weeks while dedicating the rest of her time to her children. “It allows me time to…volunteer in the community and just be home for them,” Beser said. While the adage is that attorneys focus on mundane tasks like document review, today’s freelance attorney networks focus on high-level legal work. “Leaving the law field completely is no longer the only option for lawyers searching to dial back the hours,” Montage argues that a resume that shows 20 years of part-time performance on high-level legal work advances the transition back to a full-time career after your kids leave the nest.

Does this mean a diverse, adaptable legal profession is in our future?

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About Sommer Prime (1 Articles)
Sommer is a second year student at Campbell University School of Law and is a staff writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Thomaston, CT Sommer attended University of North Carolina Charlotte and earned a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and minors in Journalism, Criminal Justice, and American Studies. Sommer enjoys recording for her podcast, Legally Blondish, spending time with her husband making homemade recipes, shopping at local thrift shops, and writing for her online blog. Sommer’s areas of interest are bankruptcy law and politics.