Flex-Time: An Old Concept Comes Of Age

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Spector: I went to the State University of New York in Buffalo Law School and graduated in 1980. While at law school I worked for the Department of Justice in the organized crime and racketeering section, and I thought that, following a clerkship for a year and a stint with a New York firm, I would become a prosecutor. I came to Weil Gotshal, and I have been here 25 years. My practice is in the area of complex commercial litigation, and I handle a wide range of cases.

Marcus: I graduated from NYU Law School in 1982. The year before graduating I had been a summer associate at Weil Gotshal, and I liked the people I worked with very much, which prompted me to join the firm permanently upon graduation. I did not think I would be staying for my entire career, but here I am 24 years later.

My practice is in the area of business finance and restructuring. In addition to representing both debtors and creditors in Chapter 11 cases, I do a substantial amount of client advisory work, particularly in the structured finance area. I started working flex-time in 1986, when my first child was born.

Editor: Ms. Spector, you have had a very active role in the leadership of Weil Gotshal in recent years. This includes chairing the firm's Professional Relations Committee. Would you tell us about the committee's mission?

Spector: The Management Committee of Weil Gotshal has made it one of the firm's priorities to be "best in class" as a place to work. There has long been a commitment to achieve this goal, and it has had particular relevance for women, minorities and other underrepresented groups. The mission of the Professional Relations Committee is to oversee the policies and programs that seek to advance this goal. Under the auspices of the Committee, a number of associate-related committees carry on a variety of activities, including professional evaluation and compensation, professional development and, of course, diversity. We have seen enormous progress and, at present, the firm ranks very high on the Vault survey and is on The American Lawyers' "A List" as one of the best law firms at which to work in the country. Needless to say, if we have a reputation as an excellent place to work, we will continue to attract top-flight talent.

Editor: I gather that, among the efforts the Committee has undertaken is the promotion of the concept of flex-time and a work-life balance at the firm. What is the origin of the flex-time initiative?

Spector: Flex-time has been with us for a considerable time. When I came to the firm there were several attorneys working on flexible schedules. When Jackie had her first child, she worked on a flexible schedule. These arrangements were informal and worked out on a person-by-person basis, however. The present formal initiative derives from the experience we have gained over a long period of time.

Marcus: I have been working on a flexible schedule for 21 years now, but there are people who predated me. The difference between then and now is that the opportunity was available to only a few people during the early years. It was an ad hoc arrangement and, indeed, many people at the firm did not know that the opportunity was available.

Over time, as people began to ask for a more formal policy, the firm worked to develop something that addressed career development issues and extended to the entire firm. A year ago the firm changed its formal policy to make clear that working on a flex-time basis would not preclude someone from partnership. That was a sea change. It reflects the firm's recognition that talented people who work hard and make a contribution, but for whom a full-time schedule may not be appropriate, still represent a valuable asset for the firm. In addition, it reflects the firm's recognition that in today's workplace, work-life balance is a major issue, one that must be addressed if the firm is going to continue to attract and retain the talent it needs to succeed.

Spector: Two people working on flex-time were made partner this year. To make it clear, our policy is meant to accommodate a variety of people with many different concerns. We decided to call the program a flex-time initiative, not a part-time one. As Jackie indicates, work-life balance is a crucial issue today. If we are to attract, and retain, the best and brightest young lawyers, we must have a clearly defined policy to address that issue.

Editor: There has been talk about flex-time programs for some time. How widespread is it in practice?

Spector: Many of our peer firms are adopting such policies. Weil Gotshal is leading the way, however, and we have received many requests for information on how to go about implementing such a program, which is another way to know that the program is working. I think this is a direction that the entire profession is going to consider.

Editor: Is it directed at a particular audience?

Spector: There are many reasons that a person might consider working on a flex-time basis. Child care issues are particularly important, of course, but people are also faced with family health considerations and the care of elderly parents.

Let me add, we are committed to providing the very best in legal services to our clients. We cannot have every associate on flex-time. This initiative represents a balancing of needs, with the needs of a particular practice area balanced against those of the lawyers who work in that area. We analyze these needs on a case-by-case basis. In a litigation practice, for example, a flex-time schedule may affect a lawyer's ability to travel and that, of course, may have adverse consequences for the practice and for the clients it serves. We try to have an honest discussion in these circumstances. The program entails flexibility on both sides of the equation.

Marcus: No discussion of work-life balance issues would be complete without an acknowledgement that the firm is making every effort to make it easier to work full-time and maintain a full and vibrant family life. Technology has been able to provide great support in this regard.

Editor: Ms. Marcus, I understand you are one of the firm's flex-time partners. For starters, what has this initiative meant for you?

Marcus: This initiative has meant a great deal to me. For years I had heard people indicate that I would have been a partner but for the fact that I had chosen a flex-time schedule. When the firm's policy was changed and I became a partner, I felt that I was validated and that my contribution over many years was being recognized. The policy was not changed for my benefit, but I trust that my example will serve to encourage those who are following me.

Editor: How about clients? On the one hand, I can see them as very supportive of the kind of positive workplace initiative this represents, but on the other hand we all know clients expect to have their attorneys - and particularly partners in charge of a matter - available to them on a full-time basis. How is that expectation factored into the initiative?

Spector: The matters that we handle are significant, so a team effort is the normal format. If a particular attorney is not available, there is always someone to provide backup. That is true across the board. If a client crisis erupts, and I happen to be in court and cannot attend to it, I can call upon people to step in and fill the breach. Our clients are aware of our flex-time policy, and they are also aware that it has not changed the fact that we are a 24/7 client-oriented firm.

Marcus: To be sure, as an attorney becomes more senior - with more experience, a greater depth of expertise and a wider reputation - he or she seems to become more indispensable. There are people who think that the clients should not be told that someone is working flex-time. I am not one of them. My clients have always known my situation, and they have always been able to get in touch with me. The concept of working on a flex-time basis requires flexibility in meeting client expectations. It is not a one-way street. As I have been accommodated, so am I expected to be as accommodating as possible in order to make sure that the firm is able to serve its clients effectively and expeditiously.

Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts on what an initiative like this says about a firm's culture and what kind of impact it has on firm morale?

Spector: An initiative such as this has a terrific impact on firm morale. We have had a very positive response from our associates, and many of our clients have chimed in to congratulate us on all of our forward-looking initiatives. Our associate evaluation system is merit-based, and it results in honest, meaningful evaluations. Our affinity groups have helped to create a welcoming, inclusive environment at the firm. The fact that we are doing these things is going to impact our ability to recruit, and then retain, the best and brightest, and I think that our clients take a certain pride in seeing their attorneys on the cutting edge of the work-life balance discussion.

Marcus: The initiative has resulted in a great boost in firm morale. I think, in addition, that it is a continuation of a culture that goes back to the firm's origins. Weil Gotshal was founded in the 1950s very largely as a consequence of discrimination in the legal profession during that era. The firm has always been hospitable to minorities, women and others who found something less than a warm welcome elsewhere, and I am very glad to say that the values to which the firm ascribed at its founding are alive and well today.

Spector: One of the constants that everything one reads about initiatives such as our flex-time program is the need for commitment from the top down. Weil Gotshal's leadership has been immensely supportive of this initiative, as with so many others, and I believe that speaks volumes for the firm's future.

Please email the interviewees at mindy.spector@weil.com or jacqueline.marcus@weil.com with questions about this interview.