Tips on Negotiating Reduced Work Hours

reduced work hoursI’ve always been in awe of one of my old friends, Y, who’s negotiated reduced work hours at numerous Big Law firms in a major market — and advanced while doing it. I reached out to her to ask for her top tips on negotiating reduced work hours and her own thoughts on the journey. Below, we present Part 1, Y’s thoughts on negotiating reduced work hours — you can find Part 2 here, where we look at her thoughts on being a successful part-time associate.  Thank you so much, Y! – Kat

Working mothers can’t have it all. I truly believe that. Something’s gotta give, and when I had my first child I wondered what that would be — and how much. There are obviously many answers to that question — there is no “one-size-fits-all.” For me, the answer was asking for a flexible work arrangement at the BigLaw firm where I was a second-year associate, so that I could continue in my career while also having time to spend with my family.

I remember when I first negotiated for reduced work hours. I had been on maternity leave with my first child and knew right away that I could not possibly raise a tiny person and also work full-time (which in my job meant being on call 24/7). ‎After contacting the powers that be at the firm about discussing a potential flexible work arrangement, I received a call from a partner, and the conversation was not nearly as scary as I thought it might be. That may also be because I went in with zero expectations, figuring that if the firm wouldn’t agree to a flexible working arrangement, I would walk. At that point in my life, working full time at an AmLaw 100 firm was not on the table for me.

By that time, I had done my homework and knew that some women were already working at the firm on an 80-percent basis. (Depending on their practice area and reason for working part time, they either worked reduced hours on a relatively regular schedule or committed to billing 80 percent of a full-time associate’s yearly billables, even if that meant working long hours on a deal one month and taking time off the next.) When I stated that I wanted to work four days a week and be home in the evenings with my baby, the partner agreed to offer me an 80-percent arrangement. He added that there were no guarantees with regard to the bonus but that the firm would aim to give me one that was prorated.

Having heard horror stories of women who officially worked part-time and were paid accordingly but billed just as much as a full-time associate, I asked what would happen if I ended up billing more than 80 percent of what a full-time associate would. Would I be reimbursed at the end of the year? The answer was no. While it didn’t seem equitable, it did incentivize me to stick to my reduced schedule rather than revert to my type-A personality and try to do it all (despite my cognitive recognition that, as a mother who wants to remain intimately involved in her child’s upbringing, I could not). “One last thing,” the partner said as we continued to talk. “I’m not saying that we’d definitely never make a part-time partner, but we most likely wouldn’t.” I just said “fine” — it was not even remotely on my radar at the time, let alone something that would have influenced my decision.

That started my long journey as an associate with a reduced work schedule.

Here are some tips I would offer to anyone thinking of requesting a similar part-time arrangement:

1) Do your homework. Find out what your company and peer companies ‎have offered in the way of flexible work arrangements so that you don’t ask for something outside your company’s comfort zone.

2) Pinpoint your priorities as they relate to the flexible arrangement you’re seeking and determine what, if anything, is non-negotiable. For me, it was getting home to ‎put my kids to bed most nights (even if that meant logging back on later) and spending time with them on the weekends.

3) Determine whether it makes sense for you to negotiate a commitment with regard to a bonus and/or career advancement. This will depend on how much these matter to you and whether you think what you’re asking for is realistic, considering the company and industry norms.

Ladies, have you considered negotiating for reduced work hours? What were your priorities, first steps, and more?

Pictured: Amazon’s best-selling indoor/outdoor clock, $17. 

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Comments

  1. This is a topic I’m really interested in as a new mom. I put in my time in BigLaw years ago, but have since worked as a legal aid attorney. I’d love to see a similar post or posts that address the nonprofit and government lawyering contexts. These tips are great, but they’re pretty specific to BigLaw. Thanks!

  2. I’m in BigLaw and about to negotiate a reduced hours schedule. I’m returning from maternity leave with my second. I was full time (and then some) after my first, but it was way too much. My health, family and work all suffered.

    Any suggestions for what schedule worked for you as a BigLaw litigator? We have a busy group so it typically feels a bit like you’re drowning on an average day. I have no idea how I’m going to manage to establish boundaries to keep any sort of balance.

    • Babyweight says:

      I get staffed on a limited number of matters. And it is feast or famine as a litigator. No schedule I’m either drowning in work or have a week with very little to do. I don’t get to work 4 days a week at 80%. I have to be available all days, but when I have downtime at work, it’s great downtime that allows me to sleep in w baby or go on a field trip or surprise big kid w me picking her up for ice cream at the end of school. Flexibility is the key. Learning to live without a schedule makes the reduced hours thing work for me.

    • My friend will check in later in the day, but in response to a brief email about her schedule she noted:

      “I generally worked M-Th, 9:30-6:00, and was paid on an 80 percent basis. But, as I mentioned in my post, there were exceptions to this – By definition, you have to be flexible. And I also worked at times from home after the kids were in bed.”

  3. NavyAttorney says:

    “that we’d definitely never make a part-time partner, but we most likely wouldn’t.””

    So did it indeed work this way? How did you still advance (as intimated in Kat’s intro)?

    • CLMom says:

      I am wondering the same thing.

      • My friend will check in on the comments later – all I meant by that she advanced was that she moved up the ranks at BigLaw firm #1 and then was able to move to BigLaw firm #2 and continue moving up by class year with the same reduced hours arrangement — I haven’t seen many people go from one big firm to another like that unless they were really junior or brought significant skills and value to the table.

    • from my friend: “On the question of advancement – partner wasn’t and isn’t on the table for me (either at my previous or current firm). But advancement comes in other forms as well. “

  4. Lorelai Gilmore says:

    This is me. I’ve been on a part time schedule as a BigLaw litigator for almost six years now. I have a few things to add:

    1) Six years ago, when I asked to go part time, the firm was still figuring out how to manage this. Now, we have much better policies in place. For example, when I work more than my part-time commitment, I get compensated for the extra hours. Bonuses are also prorated in a fair way. My understanding is that many firms now have these policies and that they are industry standard.

    2) I am a big believer that part time works only on a quarterly or annualized basis. I can’t guarantee that I’ll bill 30 instead of 40 hours every week, but I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll bill 1600 instead of 2000 hours per year. (Numbers are illustrative only.)

    3) The most control you have as a part time litigator is in picking your cases at the outset. I do better when I am very involved in fewer cases, because then I have more control over the schedule and am more involved and do more interesting work.

    4) Find your allies. There are other women and sometimes men on part time schedules at your firm. Find them and figure out how they make it work.

    5) Be creative in your schedule. I found that it didn’t work for me to try to get home every day to put the kids to bed – I was losing valuable hours and work product. It turns out that I, personally, need that long stretch from 4-9 when the email slows down and I can really write or research. So I work late twice a week, but in exchange, I work from home one day a week and try not to work much at all on the weekends. It helps me maximize my productivity. Others will have different needs. Be creative and respect your own work process.

    6) There’s a book called “I Know How She Does It.” I found it alternately aggravating and inspiring. The big message of the book is that there is enough time if you have enough control over your own schedule to be able to make it work for you. That’s what I felt like I got with a part time schedule – CONTROL. It gave me the ability to set up boundaries, the ability to say no to more work, and the ability to allocate my hours as worked best for me. Even though I often wanted to throw the book across the room, I’d still recommend it for anyone as a helpful thought exercise in how you structure your days.

    • Leslie Knope says:

      I found that book really interesting as well. It was annoying at times, but did give good perspective on prioritizing what is important to you and finding time to make it work. The author drove me nuts with how perfect she was.

    • great tips, thank you so much for weighing in!

  5. Anon for this says:

    I’m laughing because I just finished discussing my transition back to full-billables, after having a reduced billable requirement for a couple years. I’ve been working M-F 9-5, so I’ll have to spend a few more hours in office – but realistically, I’ll have to do more work at night after the kids go down.

    I’m at a mid-size firm, and cannot be considered for partnership until I’m back to a full load.

  6. I’m working M-F 9-5 and not getting enough hours to hit the 60% benchmark I’m supposed to aim for (regional large law firm). I’m in a niche specialty and trying to build my own book, but in the mean time I feel like I’m getting a bad deal from the firm. I could probably make almost twice my salary at an in-house gig with hours similar to my current job. I’d have to leave behind the book I’m building if I went in house and that would be sad.

    I’ve been trying to push the firm to recognize that they need this niche expertise, they usually need it on tight turnarounds (i.e., can’t staff me on large volume projects to fill the hours and still expect me to practice the niche), and they should really keep me as a salaried employee expert whose compensation isn’t tied to hours. Yes, that would be off the partner track until I can build up my own book sufficiently – I’m OK with that. Has anyone ever seen something like this in either an accounting firm or law firm setting?

    • Anony says:

      I am in a somewhat similar situation. If your firm doesn’t recognize/respect the value of the niche, I would say that you should really consider whether it makes sense to build your own book from that firm. For now, my situation works for me because I am happy with my hours and there is enough work in my niche that I keep my plate full by internal firm referrals. But if I were to spend time building my own book of business within my niche, I would do it on my own and not within my firm. I’ve just had to fight too hard for resources in the firm and what I really need right now is a second person in my area, but my firm is not on board with that (at least for now). On my own I would keep 100% of the profit for all the risk I would take (whereas in the firm I would still be taking on close to 100% of the risk of the time to build the book, with a questionable number of profit coming back my way).

      My niche works for me now in my firm, but I am paid hourly for hours worked. I think they would balk at a salary even though they clearly need expertise within my niche and I think it would be easy to structure a fair salary structure.

  7. Leslie Knope says:

    Would also love to see more content in this area outside of BigLaw. I am a prosecutor, really wishing for a reduced schedule. I don’t know that it is possible with my job, but if anyone has ideas I would love to hear them. I am a new mom to a 7 month old. When I read about BigLaw hours I feel grateful for a 8-5 schedule. I am on-call, but that is usually not an issue. I would ideally love to work only 4 days per week, when I am not in trial. Not sure what the rules are regarding what is considered “full time” with benefits, which I need to keep.

    • I think this is office specific. I have friends with kids in D.A.’s offices in NY that have been able to do this. One became a supervisor for a few years to have better hours, another was able to negotiate a 4 day workweek at reduced pay. Also, my understanding is that with seniority, comes a better workload of fewer but more serious cases, which also helps with time management.

      • Leslie Knope says:

        Thanks AIMS, good to hear that this is happening in other offices. I am currently in the stage right before you “make partner”, handling a high volume of cases and with a handful of very serious cases too, in an effort to prove myself worthy of the next stage where as you said, the time management becomes better. I could probably negotiate less pay, but need to pencil out how that would work on paper with my budget.

  8. I have been part-time in BigLaw for five years, since I was a fourth year. I find that the biggest benefit for me is that I have no guilt/shame/hesitation in saying “no” or taking more vacation than I otherwise would. I come in every day (9:30-6, although I’m usually not billing the whole time) and I do work nights and weekends from time to time, but I don’t worry when I have to leave early for a doctor’s appointment or take Friday off.

    A few additional comments:

    1) I work in a small group, and when we’re busy, it’s very hard to say no. So from that standpoint, I find that it’s hard to stick my target if we’re busy/understaffed.
    2) I get adjusted if I go over by 100 hours (5%). Last year I hit our target (1900+100 non-billable) and was adjusted all the way to full-time.
    3) I am in a specialty group that primarily supports M&A. It’s good in some respects because I work very independently. I find that when I’m called into a bunch of meetings, my flexibility plummets. On the flip side, my practice is such that I could get asked to do something at any given moment of the day, which is a bit annoying.
    3) When I went part-time (as a 4th year), the head of my group made some comment about partnership like “we’ll figure it out when we get there,” (which I totally discounted since partnership seemed inordinately far away). My group still intends to put me up within the range of my class (our partnership track is pretty fluid). Going part-time did ding my eligibility by a proportional amount (instead of being eligible as a 7th year, which never actually happens, I was formally eligible as an 8th year).

  9. As an alternative to going part time –

    I went from f/t litigation to a f/t government position – and it was as if I went down to a part time job, in comparison. Contrast 60 – 80 hours per week, working most holidays, travel 2-4 times a week, work all evenings and weekends to a 40-hour per week schedule, long lunch (enough time to work out, 1.5 hours) a few times per week, NO holidays or weekends ever and no side-eye when you take vacation or leave early to pick a toddler with pink eye.

    I’ve been promoted twice in two years and have a good salary (especially when you figure it out on a per hour basis).

    • CPA Lady says:

      Yeah, this is what I did too. I just got a normal 40 hour a week job with minimal overtime, zero travel, and supportive bosses who both have young children and “get it”. It’s completely doable for me.

    • I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about government jobs, though. What you wrote is true of some government jobs, but not all. Senior level officials and their advisors are on all the time — while my official hours might be 40 hours a week per the government, that never happens for me or my colleagues. As an advisor I’m in the office every day, work every night after my kids go to bed, work at least part of every weekend, and anytime that my Senior Level official needs me to work. On top of that I have a lot of travel, sometimes last minute. Now, I have an understanding boss when I have to quickly arrange last minute sick childcare, for example, and when I do have to manage travel schedules with my husband (he is in a similar position for the government). But it’s mostly a corporate law hours position at government pay, and I do this because I love my work and am proud to work for my country. Again, wanted to point this out because all too often people think all government positions are easy and require 40 hours a week or less.

      • In addition to advisors to top agency brass, my experience is that litigation is still litigation. My office is understaffed and busy and I often have periods of where I work weekends and nights though I can often do that work at home. It is better than the firm but PT is not really an option at all and there is no paid parental leave so you basically come back with no leave. There are some work flexibilities but they are constrained by personnel regs and a CBA negotiated by a union that I’m not allowed to join. So in some ways it is less flexible than at the firm and I still have to account for my time in 15 min increments (like billables). I am happy for what I have but it can be frustrating to feel like I’m working long hours for less $ while reading articles every budget cycle about govt workers being lazy leeches. then I think about what state prosecutors and PDs make in my area and the hours they work and smack myself a few times for whining.

  10. stressedatwork says:

    Any investment banking / private equity type women that have successful negotiated reduce work hours? It seems work really well in law with the billables set up, but seems like it’d be challenging to replicate in finance? Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

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