Fostering Flexibility in Law Firms; Satisfaction in the Legal Profession

From The Practice May/June 2015
Highlighting key stories about the profession you may have missed

Fostering flexibility in law firms

A women-led U.S. law firm, the Geller Law Group, has found one way to reform the traditional law firm model by allowing its lawyers more time and flexibility.

Research has revealed that a significant reason women leave the partnership track is an inflexible and demanding work environment that limits lawyers’ ability to care for their children.

At Geller the partners, while still well compensated, make less than they would at a traditional law firm. However, they have greater freedom over their schedule and fewer hours. The firm has no office, instead renting a shared space when the lawyers need it. This means that women partners with children do not feel they have to sneak out of their office for their children’s doctors’ appointments or recitals, as they already spend much of their time working outside the office. A shared space also helps allow the firm charge less than competitors.

The model is not without its challenges. Some lawyers miss the camaraderie and support of a traditional office environment. Because of its small size, the firm only recently bought short-term disability insurance that allows for paid maternity or paternity leave. Although firms such as the Geller Law Group often want to provide a full range of benefits, they simply lack the resources. Large firms often provide these benefits, but in practice their work environments discourage lawyers from using them.

Satisfaction in the legal profession

A new study of 6,200 lawyers across four states finds that those in public service, such as public defenders or legal aid attorneys, were the most likely to report being happy—despite making the least money. Meanwhile, high-prestige, well-remunerated jobs, such as law firm partners, were no more likely to report life satisfaction than law firm associates or those in other legal careers.

The results of the study, authored by Lawrence Krieger and Kennon Sheldon and published this month in the George Washington Law Review, found that high-prestige jobs did not provide the three pillars of self-determination theory, a psychological model of human happiness: feelings of competence, autonomy, and connection to others. Public service jobs did provide these three pillars and seemed to result in greater happiness.

High-prestige, well-remunerated jobs, such as law firm partners, were no more likely to report life satisfaction than law firm associates or those in other legal careers.

Other studies have found that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than nonlawyers and have higher rates of substance abuse and suicide, while law students struggle with mental health issues.

It is unclear why lawyers experience these problems. They may stem from long hours and demanding clients, being trained to always look for the worst-case scenario, or society’s general animosity toward the profession.

Law schools like George Washington have started programs to help students think critically and plan their careers. Students meet with practicing attorneys from different fields, learn techniques to deal with stress, and explore their own interests to see what career might be a healthy fit.


The Making of Lawyers’ Careers: Inequality and Opportunity in the American Legal Profession

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