Idaho’s well-known quality of life appears to extend to the lives of Idaho lawyers, who are achieving greater work-life balance than their peers in other states.
Lawyers’ hours vary greatly depending on where they work – at a large firm or small practice. But national studies show lawyers at large firms regularly work 70 or 80 hours a week to meet billable hour requirements.
Meanwhile, more than half of Idaho attorneys – at firms large or small – work less than 50 hours a week, according to data from the Idaho Bar Association, said Anne Kelleher, assistant director of career services at Concordia University School of Law in Boise. Kelleher did some number-crunching of data from IBA’s 2016 membership survey and found that Idaho attorneys just don’t appear to work the hours of their peers nationally.
Kelleher’s research found that nearly half of all Idaho attorneys practice solo or in small firms. Only about 36 percent reported working 50 or more hours a week. Another 38 percent reported an average workweek of 40 to 49 hours.
Another 18 percent said they’re trying to manage a workload that is too large.
Work-life balance has become critically important to law firms as they try to attract the best talent they can. Despite efforts to help lawyers find that balance, the larger firms, even in Idaho, still require a high number of billable hours – usually around 1,800 a year for an associate, or about 34 hours a week – that translate into long workdays for ambitious attorneys who are striving to make partner. Studies have shown that lawyers only spend about one-third of their time on billable hours; the rest of their time goes to administrative and other tasks. Some firms in other states like New York and the Los Angeles area require as much as 2,000 billable hours per year, Kelleher said.
One reason firms are trying to help lawyers find better work-life balance is to attract more women to the field and see them promoted to leadership positions. A McKinsey & Co and Thomson Reuters study last year found that women are still scarce at the highest levels in law firms. The study found female lawyers are 29 percent less likely to be promoted to the first partnership level than men, and only 19 percent of equity partners are women.
Meanwhile, almost half of female lawyers in the study said prioritizing work-life balance was one of the greatest challenges to their professional success. In a survey conducted by Robert Half Legal, 28 percent of lawyers said that after salary, flexible work arrangements provided the greatest incentive for legal professionals to remain with an employer. The company suggested options such as a compressed workweek, with long hours worked in fewer than five days, and job-sharing.
“Employees can become very invested in alternative work arrangements that they may not be able to work out with another employer,” the company said. “Take advantage of this approach to build employee loyalty and job satisfaction.”
Lawyers at Hawley Troxell, Idaho’s largest law firm, achieve some flexibility by choosing to work on contract or as an employee, not partner, said Susan Olson, CFO and COO of the firm in Boise. She added that once lawyers do make partner, they tend to find a way to work fewer hours if they want to.
“Typically as a partner and owner, your compensation is most certainly going to be determined by a lot of your individual performance,” Olson said. “It depends on the role.”
It’s just that getting to partner can mean working long hours.
Research shows that at the larger firms, “even though there are definitely flexible policies in place, few actually take advantage of those flexible work opportunities,” Kelleher said.
The larger Idaho firms Holland & Hart, Stoel Rives, and Perkins Coie all have a part-time/reduced hour schedule available. According to the National Association for Law Placement, Kelleher said, Holland and Hart reported it had two part-time female associates, one part time male partner/member, and two part time “other” lawyers, one male, one female. She said Perkins Coie reported only one part-time employee, a female partner, and Stoel Rives reported two part-time employees, both female partners.
“Any big firm is going to say, ‘We value diversity and are going to do whatever it takes to keep our good female lawyers here,'” said Pam H0wland, who spent 17 years at a large Boise firm before starting her own practice in employment law. “The challenge with that is in an industry where you are measured by the billable hour, how does that shake out in real life when you have a handful of people working less than others?”
Lawyers who work fewer hours will inevitably fall behind their peers who work more, said Howland.
“I tried part-time programs at my old firm,” she said. “The reality is if I’m measured in comparison to my male peers, and they’re billing 2,000 hours a year working nights, working weekends, trying to go over and above, it’s difficult to give the low billers the best cases and the best compensation.”
It can also be expensive to carry a large number of part-time workers, noted Olson.
“If you’re looking at a private practice law firm that is really driven by the billable hours, you’re only going to have so much room,” Olson said. “If you’re a 50-lawyer law firm, are you going to have 50 offices filled with reduced-schedule lawyers? Probably not.
“As an industry we have a long ways to go,” she said.