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Flexibility key to retaining good lawyers

|Written By By Natalie Fraser

A law firm loses an average of $315,000 when an associate leaves, says Sonya Kunkel, senior director of Catalyst Canada. Often the reason for leaving involves dissatisfaction with work-life balance.

Lawyers' rate of reporting problems managing their work and personal lives is more than double the national average, says Sonya Kunkel.
Lawyers' rate of reporting problems managing their work and personal lives is more than double the national average, says Sonya Kunkel.

The high cost of losing associates makes a strong business case for addressing work-life balance issues, says Kunkel. Through research and consultation, Catalyst provides law firms with the tools to do so. It recently conducted a survey of over 1,400 lawyers across Canada, focusing on their experiences in managing work and family life. Kunkel discussed the survey results at an Ontario Women's Law Association meeting Feb. 2 in Toronto.
"Nearly two-thirds of all lawyers in law firms report difficulties in managing their work and personal lives," says Kunkel. "This is nearly double the rate of the overall Canadian work force."
The Catalyst study shows clear differences in the experiences and perceptions of partners and associates, and of men and women.
Three-quarters of female associates agreed that advancement in their firm depended on putting their careers ahead of their personal lives, says Kunkel. Only half of the male partners agreed.
Female associates emphasized the value of authority figures in acting as role models regarding this issue.
"One women associate, for example, recounted for us the difference it makes when authority figures place a high value on life outside their firm," says Kunkel. "It creates the feeling that it's okay for others to draw the line between their personal and professional lives."
Fewer women associates than other lawyers felt comfortable acknowledging non-work commitments with their colleagues, and many felt more pressured over "face time," time spent at work to signal to leadership a commitment to career first.
A panel discussion moderated by Joseé Bouchard, equity advisor for the Law Society of Upper Canada, examined why the legal profession makes it so difficult to manage work and personal life.
"My biggest issue is with scheduling and the lack of control over it," said Lori Duffy of WeirFoulds LLP.
For example, clients regularly call to reschedule meetings after she has arranged family obligations around the original time. This means last-minute alternate arrangements regarding her family obligations, causing stress for all involved.
"No matter how much you plan, no matter how much you organize, at the end of the day sometimes a client is going to make that call," said Duffy.
Victoria Starr, of Carole Curtis Barristers & Solicitors, offered several tips on managing work-life balance.
"Learn that good is good enough," said Starr. "You don't have to be perfect all of the time."
Starr said she was recently served with documents for a motion the next day. She considered staying up all night to prepare affidavits, but decided she could do a good job without going to that extreme. She went home and spent time with her family, and successfully argued the motion the next day.
Starr also recommended setting limits on workload. "In my job interview, I said to my boss, I don't work weekends," she said. She tells her clients the same thing.
Hiring workers to do routine tasks can free up time for family, said Duffy. When she started practising, she noticed the senior partners at her firm had housekeepers, yard workers, and snow shovellers and decided to try hiring help herself. Although it was expensive, as her practice grew she found she could afford it.
"When I get home on the weekend, it's my weekend," she says. "I'm a whole lot happier."
Many firms offer flexible work arrangements, said Mary Jackson, director of legal personnel at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP. The concept works best with certain practice areas and certain types of people who are very pragmatic and focused. It isn't always successful.
"One of the problems is not just reduced hours. People want predictability and that's where we really struggle," Jackson said. "It's not easy to organize."
Matching lawyers to the resources they need helps manage difficult situations, Jackson said. Friends and family cannot always provide the required support.
"One accounting firm has a concierge service for their accountants. For example, if you're in a crisis and can't find someone to walk your dog, they help you find someone," Jackson said.
Jackson sees a big change happening in organizations as men's and women's life priorities become more similar.
 "Men are starting to take parental leave and that will have a positive impact on women." she said. "All of a sudden you don't have one class of person always taking the leave.
"The change in family structure is happening a little bit. There are more demands on both partners than there were, and this will help lead the change."

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