At law firms, changes in work-life policy start at the top
By Maggie Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 6/19/05
Matt Lowrie has been walking his 10-year-old daughter, Molly, to school each morning and chaperoning almost all her field trips. Last year, he helped out at a school geography bee, then wore his bright yellow moderator's t-shirt over his dress shirt all day at the office. This might not seem unusual in an age of hands-on fathers, except that Lowrie is a founding partner of a Boston law firm. His ability to have a full family life and be open about it
at work is part of an experimental effort to nurture change from the top in a demanding profession.
Whether they're in law or retail, leaders not only have the power to affect work-life policies and workloads, but they set
the tone at the office for how everyone juggles. When the boss stays until 8 p.m., who feels good leaving at 7? That's why the ThirdPath Institute, a Philadelphia non-profit, is bringing Lowrie and other leading lawyers around the country together to tackle their own work-family challenges. "Their personal desire for change has many ripple effects for everybody in the organization," says Jessica DeGroot, who founded ThirdPath in 1999 to explore ways to redesign work and private life to create more time for family and other priorities.
Under ThirdPath's auspices, Lowrie and nine other male law leaders have been sharing work-life war stories by conference call every other month since the fall. Next autumn, they will meet face-to-face. DeGroot also works with 10 female partners and firm leaders. But since just 17 percent of partners in major US law firms are women, her work with top male lawyers has special resonance, at least for now.
Almost all large law firms now offer part-time schedules, yet they are little used, as they are usually not the path to partnership. "As a whole, long hours and high pressure are a problem in many, many law firms," says Joan Williams, director of the Gender, Work and Family Project at American University's Washington College of Law.
Many major firms require attorneys to work 1,800 billable hours annually but expect 2,100 hours or more from anyone who wants to advance. In contrast, the 2-year-old firm of Lowrie, Lando & Anastasi requires its 20 lawyers to work 1600 hours - and even the six partners themselves often do
so without penalty. The firm thrives, says Lowrie, by charging less, cutting costs by being based in Cambridge instead of Boston and offering clients the benefit of fresh, energized lawyers.
"Sixteen hundred hours is for real," says Jeffrey Powers, a former associate at the firm who recently left to work as an in-house corporate lawyer. "The fact that the partners aren't grinding out the hours reinforces that and adds to the health of the culture."
During a recent conference call with Lowrie and other members of the ThirdPath work redesign group, Jeffrey Jones, managing partner at the Boston firm of Palmer & Dodge asked Lowrie whether such changes would be doable at a bigger firm. It would be tough, answered Lowrie, unless the leaders all were committed to reform. "Shared vision is the key," said Lowrie, who billed 1,850 hours last year, but reworked his work in order to walk his daughter to
school more often and spend more time with his 12-year-old son, Jack.
Still, many in the field are skeptical that the industry norm - high compensation in exchange for grueling hours - will change. "What will always motivate a firm is economics," argues Pam Berman, a law partner and president of the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, who is not part of the ThirdPath experiment.
That's why bringing pioneering leaders together and helping them feel less alone as they carve out controversial change is so important. "There can be a great sense of isolation about making this work on your own," says Jim Sandman, managing partner at Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, D.C., and a member of the ThirdPath project. "There are no one-size-fits-all solutions."
Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at .